NOTE: This situation is rapidly evolving, and new information about COVID-19 variants is coming out daily. We will continue to update this article.
What is a virus?
Three types of organisms can spread infection: bacteria, fungi, and viruses. All of these organisms are microscopic. COVID-19–the novel coronavirus–is a virus, which is different from bacteria and fungi in a few ways.
First, viruses are the smallest and simplest of the germs listed above. They are essentially made of just genetic material (DNA, aka deoxyribonucleic acid) or RNA (ribonucleic acid) enclosed in protein. Viruses must enter a living organism to carry out their only function, which is to replicate. When a virus enters our bodies, it uses components of our cells to make copies of itself. We get sick when the virus replicates faster than our immune system can control.
What is a mutation? How do different variants of the same virus come into existence?
All viruses, including the novel coronavirus, change over time. That’s because they undergo mutations, which are permanent changes in the genetic material. They can occur randomly, by radiation, or when there is a “copying mistake” and the enzyme that is involved in replication makes a mistake in the genetic code.
Mutations lead to new variants of viruses. Sometimes, mutations accidentally make it easier for the virus to spread and infect more people. If that happens, the new strain potentially becomes more common. It’s similar to the concept of evolution. When random genetic “mistakes” are beneficial to the survival of the organism (in this case, the virus), they get passed on.
Are all of the variants considered the same virus? Are they all COVID-19?
Yes, all of the variants are still considered COVID-19. It might be helpful to think of each strain like a sibling. They’re all related and part of the same family (i.e. COVID-19), but each is a little different.
The exact number of COVID-19 variants is not currently defined, but multiple variants are circulating throughout the globe. The original strain was detected in China, at the beginning of the pandemic, in December 2019.
Then in September 2020, scientists identified another strain in the U.K. called B.1.1.7. However, this one had some key differences. Most important is a mutation affecting a spike protein in the COVID-19 virus. This spike protein is how the virus enters and latches onto healthy cells. The mutation in essence makes the virus “stickier,” increasing transmission rates up to 70%. Luckily, this new strain doesn’t appear to make the disease worse though. However, it has unfortunately spread to the U.S.
Scientists have also noticed a new strain from South Africa that is very similar to the one in the U.K. in that it spreads more easily, but doesn’t cause a more severe illness. However, this variant has a new advantage that might make it less susceptible to antibody treatment from the blood plasma of recovered COVID-19 patients. Overall, more research is needed on all of the variants before scientists can be sure of the consequences.
UPDATE, as of 1/22/21: British officials have reported that the UK variant may be associated with a higher risk of death, although they stress that this is not certain. Additionally, the CDC expects this variant to be the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.
Is this a surprise to scientists?
No, scientists have been expecting COVID-19 to mutate. This is something that happens with all viruses. Take the flu for example. Every year, scientists have to develop a new flu vaccine to account for mutations in the virus. In other words, it’s completely normal for a virus to mutate, and we can likely expect more COVID-19 variants to pop up in the future.
What does this all mean for me?
Recently, two small studies have suggested the more contagious South African variant may have some resistance to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. However, even if a vaccinated individual is infected with a new variant, scientists believe the vaccines will prevent serious COVID-19 infection. The new variants pose a much more significant risk to those who do not get vaccinated. In summary, medical experts still strongly recommend you get vaccinated when it’s your turn.
In the meantime, since these variants spread more easily, you need to be extra careful about wearing a good mask with a filter, social distancing, and taking all other quarantine precautions. These fundamental safety measures are still your best protection against all variants of COVID-19. Additionally, while the vaccines should still work, they might need to be updated to account for the continued evolution of the virus. This is not a cause for panic; it’s just like what happens with the flu vaccine every year.