Awareness is rapidly emerging about the capabilities of these variants. Scientists are trying to find out more about how quickly they can spread, whether they can cause more deadly illnesses, and whether vaccines that are already permitted can protect people from them.
What we know
Via mutation, viruses continuously alter, and new variants of a virus are projected to occur over time. New versions often arise and disappear. There are other instances when new variants develop and persist. During this pandemic, several variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 were reported in the United States and globally.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus, a large family of viruses. Coronaviruses are named for the spikes on their surfaces that look like crowns. Scientists monitor changes in the virus, including changes in the spikes on the virus’ surface. These experiments, including genetic analysis of the virus, help scientists understand how virus modifications can influence how it spreads and what happens to individuals who are infected with it.
Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 are circulating globally:
- In the fall of 2020, the United Kingdom (UK) reported a variant named B.1.1.7 with a high number of mutations. More easily and rapidly than other varieties, this version spreads. In January 2021, experts in the UK stated that, compared to other variant viruses, this variant may be associated with an increased risk of death, but further studies are needed to validate this finding.
- Another variant named B.1.351 appeared independently of B.1.1.7 in South Africa. B.1.351, initially identified at the beginning of October 2020, shares several mutations with B.1.1.7. At the end of January 2021, cases caused by this variant were registered in the US.
- A variant named P.1 originated in Brazil, which was first detected in Brazilian passengers who were checked at an airport in Japan in early January during routine screening. There is a collection of additional mutations in this variant that may impair its ability to be recognized by antibodies. At the end of January 2021, this variant was first observed in the US.
These variants tend to be spreading more rapidly and easily than other variants, which could lead to more COVID-19 cases. An rise in the number of cases would bring more burden on the infrastructure of health care, lead to more hospitalizations, and likely more casualties.
So far, studies indicate that these variants are recognized by antibodies produced by vaccination with currently approved vaccines. This is being closely studied and there are further research ongoing.
Rigorous and increased compliance with public health mitigation strategies, such as vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, is essential to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 and protect public health.
To restrict the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 and ensure the safety, strict and increased compliance with public health mitigation strategies, such as vaccination, physical distancing, the use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, is imperative.
What we do not know
Scientists are working to learn more about these variants, and more studies are needed to understand:
- How widely these new 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
What it means
Public health officials are studying these variants quickly to learn more to control their spread. They want to understand whether the variants:
- Spread more easily from person-to-person
- Cause milder or more severe disease in people
- Are detected by currently available viral tests
- Respond to medicines currently being used to treat people for COVID-19
- Change the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines
Should you be worried about the new strains of COVID-19?
We need to be more careful than ever, since the U.K. strain is already in Connecticut, and the South African and Brazil strains have been confirmed elsewhere in the U.S. And we know that all of these strains spread very easily.
And once the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to your family it will be important to get both doses.