New variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19, are showing up around the world. Evidence suggests that these new viruses – including a strain first identified in the United Kingdom – spread more quickly than others and that some of these variants have emerged in the United States.
How Many Variants Are There Globally?
Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 are circulating globally. Here are the ones that have been identified:
- The United Kingdom (UK) identified a variant called B.1.1.7 with a large number of mutations in the fall of 2020. This variant spreads more easily and quickly than other variants. In January 2021, experts in the UK reported that this variant may be associated with an increased risk of death compared to other variant viruses, but more studies are needed to confirm this finding. This variant has since been detected in many countries around the world and was first detected in the U.S. at the end of December 2020.
- In South Africa, another variant called B.1.351 emerged independently of B.1.1.7. It was originally detected in early October 2020 and shares some mutations with B.1.1.7. Cases caused by this variant have been reported in the U.S. at the end of January 2021.
- In Brazil, a variant called P.1 emerged that was first identified in travelers from Brazil who were tested during a routine screening at an airport in Japan in early January. This variant contains a set of additional mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies. It was first detected in the U.S. at the end of January 2021.
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Why Does the Coronavirus Change?
Viruses constantly change through mutation and new variants are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge, then disappear. Other times, new variants appear and persist. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during the pandemic.
Will There Be More New Variants?
Yes. Mutations will happen as long the coronavirus spreads through the population.
Are the New Variants More Transmissible?
Strong data from the UK suggests that the new variant of the virus is more transmissible. There are currently two theories about what’s making this strain more transmissible. One is that this variant of the virus is “stickier,” meaning that it requires a smaller amount of the virus to cause infection because it’s better at sticking to your cells. Another theory is that this variant causes people to harbor more virus particles in their noses and throats, which means more virus is expelled when people talk, cough, or sneeze.
Following CDC guidelines that include wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding crowds, and handwashing can help prevent a more transmissible variant from spreading further.
Is There a Difference Between “More Transmissible” and “More Contagious?”
Transmission is often used when talking about populations, while contagious is more often used when we’re talking about an individual. They’re interchangeable to some degree.
Will the Vaccines Still Be Effective Against the New Variants?
The data so far suggests that the vaccines will still produce immunity against the new variants. In the United Kingdom, laboratory tests have shown the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be just as effective on the new variant that’s prevalent there. The manufacturers of the Moderna vaccine recently said that its studies have shown that it’s effective against both the U.K. variant and South Africa variants – although, in relative terms, it’s less effective against the South African variant. The company is currently working on an improved booster shot to better guard against this variant.
What We Still Don’t Know About These Variants
Scientists are working hard to learn more about these variants, but more studies are needed to understand:
- How widely these variants have spread
- How the disease caused by these new variants differs from the disease caused by other variants that are currently circulating
- How these variants may affect existing therapies, vaccines, and tests.
Will the New Variant Eventually Be More Widespread Than the Current Virus?
If the new variant is more transmissible than other SARS-CoV-2 lineages, it eventually could be the most commonly found lineage of SARS-CoV-2. However, while we still have so many people with no immunity to the virus, we should still see different lineages spreading in different parts of the world.
How Do I Protect Myself from the New Variant?
The same things we’re doing now to protect ourselves – wearing masks, social distancing, and handwashing – should work against the variant. But higher transmission could mean more cases, which can overwhelm hospital systems again and increase the risk for individuals, so it may be necessary to re-implement closures and restrictions to flatten the curve if it starts to rise.
More Questions About COVID-19?
If you’d like to learn more about COVID-19, the vaccines currently available, and what you can do to protect yourself and your family, visit the Baptist Health COVID-19 Resources page. More information about COVID-19 variants can also be found at the CDC.
Next Steps and Useful Resources: