COVID-19 Variants: What You Need to Know
The virus that causes COVID-19, like all viruses, is constantly changing. When there have been several significant mutations to the virus then it’s called a variant. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants persist.
Variants are expected. The best way to slow the emergence of new variants is to reduce the spread of infection by taking measures to protect yourself including getting a COVID-19 vaccine when available. Vaccines keep you from getting sick, being hospitalized, or dying from COVID-19.
Why does the coronavirus change?
It is normal for viruses to change, but it is still something scientists follow closely because there can be important implications. Variants of viruses occur when there is a change or mutation to the virus’s genes. Mutations in viruses including the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic are neither new nor unexpected.
Most changes have little to no impact on the virus’ properties. However, depending on where the changes are located in the virus’s genetic material, they may affect the virus’s properties, such as transmission (for example, it may spread more easily) or severity (for example, it may cause more severe disease).
The more viruses circulate, the more they may change. These changes can occasionally result in a virus variant that is better adapted to its environment compared to the original virus. This process of changing and selection of successful variants is called “virus evolution.”
As long as the coronavirus spreads through the population, mutations will continue to happen.
How are the new coronavirus variants different?
Scientists monitor all variants but may classify certain ones as variants of interest, concern, or high consequence based on how easily they spread, how severe their symptoms are, and how they are treated.
Some variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on healthcare resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.
The mutations in the alpha version and some other variants seem to affect the coronavirus’s spike protein, which covers the outer coating of SARS-CoV-2 and gives the virus its characteristic spiny appearance. These proteins help the virus attach to human cells in the nose, lungs, and other areas of the body. This appears to make some of these new strains ‘stickier’ due to changes in the spike protein. Studies are underway to understand more about whether any of the variants are more easily transmitted.
A variant has one or more mutations that differentiate it from other variants in circulation. As expected, multiple variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been documented globally throughout this pandemic. More infectious variants such as beta, which first appeared in South Africa, may have increased ability to re-infect people who have recovered from earlier versions of the coronavirus, and also be somewhat resistant to some of the coronavirus vaccines in development.
The delta coronavirus is considered a “variant of concern” because it appears to be more easily transmitted from one person to another. As of July 2021, delta is regarded as the most contagious form of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus so far. Delta is rapidly becoming the dominant variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and is now in many countries and people traveling internationally are likely to encounter it. Being fully vaccinated for COVID-19 can protect you from the delta variant, but breakthrough infections sometimes occur.
Will the COVID-19 vaccines work on the new variants?
Still, vaccines currently used appear to offer significant protection from severe disease caused by coronavirus variants. Although vaccines afford very high protection, infection with the delta and other variants remains possible. Fortunately, vaccination, even among those who acquire infections, appears to prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. We need to continue all of our efforts to prevent viral transmission and to vaccinate as many people as possible, and as soon as we can.
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