With COVID-19 vaccines becoming more widespread, so do questions and concerns regarding new COVID-19 variants. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about COVID-19 variants answered.
How Do COVID-19 Variants Happen?
Viruses typically change through mutation, so seeing new variants over time is always expected. New virus variants will appear and disappear, though some will persist. The COVID-19 cases recorded since last year are a result of a variant, as Dr. Charles Sims points out in an episode of the Smart Health podcast:
“Mutations of viruses are very common. It’s actually expected and predicted that they’ll mutate. Prior to this, we’ve already had a major variant circulate in the United States. In the initial part of the epidemic, we had one variety of the virus, and within about April, there was a big switch in almost 98% of the virals we were seeing in the United States was the second variant. It wasn’t at that point more contagious or more serious or didn’t cause more hospitalization, but it was genetically different. So that’s not unexpected; it already happened.”
— Dr. Charles Sims, Medical Director for Infectious Diseases in St. Luke’s Health’s North Houston Market, Local Health Authority for Montgomery County
What COVID-19 Variants Have Been Identified?
While there are already multiple highly infectious variants of the virus circulating worldwide and in the United States, Dr. Sims notes that this isn’t a cause for alarm:
“It’s not causing more severe disease; it’s just causing more people to be more infected. Now, if you infect more people, you’re going to see more severe cases just because of the sheer numbers and the percentages... the more cases you get, the more percentage of those people you’ll see. It’s not great news, but it’s not unexpected that you see a viral shift even in just a few months like this. There’s no evidence that the vaccine will not be effective, and some preliminary data shows that the vaccines will still be effective for the new variant.”
Here are the SARS-CoV-2 variants that are currently present in the United States:
1. U.K. Variant (B.1.1.7)
Initially detected in the United Kingdom, this variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was first identified in the U.S. in December 2020. Vaccines have proved to be highly effective against this variant of the virus, which CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has noted as the dominant strain in the U.S.
2. South Africa Variant (B.1.351)
This variant was initially detected in South Africa in December 2020. It is also reported to have high transmissibility rates due to the multiple mutations on its spike protein.
3. Brazil Variant (P.1)
First discovered in travelers from Brazil during a screening at an airport in Japan back in January 2021, it is now widely circulating in places as far away as South Korea and the Faroe Islands.
4. California Variant (B.1.427 and B.1.429)
This variant was identified in California as early as January 2021. It is associated with the outbreaks in California, and it has viral mutations located on the spike protein of the virus.
5. Texas Variant (BV-1)
This recent variant was discovered in the Brazos Valley in Texas during an ongoing testing program. It is closely related to the U.K. variant, which is the dominant strain in the U.S. It has similar genetic markers associated with rapid spread and severe symptoms, although the student from whom the sample was taken presented with only mild symptoms.
How Are COVID-19 Variants Identified?
Scientists identify COVID-19 variants using a process called genomic sequencing. This involves decoding genes to learn more about the virus itself. This lets scientists monitor how the virus changes, how these changes affect its characteristics, and how these new characteristics may impact our health. The CDC employs various tactics in tracking variants of COVID-19, such as coordinating with state health departments, public health agencies, commercial diagnostic laboratories, and universities to examine and sequence thousands of samples from across the country.
How Are COVID-19 Variants Classified?
The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) developed a system for characterizing and classifying variants of SARS-CoV-2.
1. Variant of Interest
These variants come with genetic markers that are thought to affect transmissions, have caused unique outbreak clusters, or have limited prevalence within an area. Examples of these strains are the ones that are unique to New York.
2. Variant of Concern
These viral mutations have evidence of higher transmissibility and increased severity of the disease. The variants from the U.K., Brazil, South Africa, and California are grouped under this classification.
3. Variant of High Consequence
This variant of the virus is highly resistant to antibodies following a previous infection or vaccination, is resistant to Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) therapy, causes severe clinical disease, and increases hospitalizations. There are currently no COVID-19 variants under this classification.
Viral mutations occur the more they are transmitted, so it’s crucial to get vaccinated against the existing ones as soon as possible. Not only will this protect against the current circulating COVID-19 variants, but it will also help prevent the possibility of new strains from forming. Learn about where you can get your vaccine at St. Luke’s Health.
CNN | CDC Director: UK Variant is Now Dominant COVID-19 Strain in the US
CNN | New Coronavirus Variant Spotted in California Raises Alarm
CDC | About the Variants
CDC | SARS-CoV-2 Variant Classifications and Definitions
CDC | Genomic Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2
ABC 13 | New COVID Variant Identified at Texas A&M Lab Suggests Potential Resistance to Antibodies
Houston Chronicle | Texas A&M Researchers Discover a New COVID-19 Variant in College Station
Advisory Board | How Well COVID-19 Vaccines Work Against Variants, According to the Latest Research