You aren’t the exact same person you were a year ago. Similarly, viruses can change, just like you and I. 

Wuhan, China, reported the first COVID-19 case on the 31st of December 2019, more than a year ago. Since then, new COVID-19 strains and variants have emerged, sparking even more panic and concern in a world struggling to curb the spread of the virus. 

There have been thousands of reports about the emergence of new strains from various countries worldwide. These reports have circulated information about new variants originating from India, Brazil, the U.K., and South Africa. 

COVID-19 Variant

“What are COVID-19 variants? How many strains are there? Are these coronavirus variants more dangerous than the original strains?” 

 Let’s explore the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the new COVID-19 variants. 

It is best to equip yourself with current knowledge and information about these new variants and what to expect with the ever-changing COVID-19 virus.

Content:

COVID-19 variants || Classification of variants || Impact on safety || Impact on vaccine efficacy || Preventing the emergence of new variants || Bottomline: COVID-19 variants 

What are COVID-19 Variants? 

Viruses change and mutate, and this can lead to the formation of a new strain or variant. These new variants may emerge and then disappear, while some may persist for more extended periods. [1

The media might interchange the terms ‘variant’ and ‘strain.’ However, variants must possess significant changes from the original strain to be classified as a new strain. [2

COVID-19 Variant

How Are New COVID-19 Variants Formed? 

When a virus finds its way into your body, it will infect one of your cells. Then, the virus will attempt to replicate itself to infect your other cells. In this process of copying itself, the virus may generate tiny errors. These random errors lead to mutation. [2

COVID-19 Variant

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 mutates and changes this way. Throughout the pandemic, new variants have been emerging and circulating globally. [3

At times, mutations may form weaker variants. On other occasions, the virus gets lucky. Its mutation is advantageous, making the virus stronger. [2

How Are These Variants Classified? 

The classification of variants is subject to change based on new data and information collected. 

Furthermore, the classifications may differ based on the information source. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may classify one variant into different categories. This discrepancy occurs because the impact and importance of the variants differ based on location. [3

In general, there are three classifications of variants. [3

Variant of Interest 

If you have been infected with the COVID-19 virus, your body generates antibodies that may grant you temporary immunity.

Additionally, the administration of a vaccine is another way to generate these antibodies. COVID-19 vaccines will teach your body how to form these antibodies, enabling you to garner protection from the COVID-19 virus. These antibodies would reduce your risk of infection if you were exposed to the COVID-19 virus. [4]

Variants of interest may be linked to:-

  • reduced neutralization by these antibodies 
  • lowered efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines
  • lowered efficacy of treatment
  • changes to the accuracy of diagnostic COVID-19 tests
  • increased transmissibility or higher disease severity. [3, 5

There may be evidence for increased unique outbreak clusters caused by these variants. However, there might not be a significant prevalence or expansion of these viruses in the U.S. or other countries. [3

According to the CDC, some variants of interest first emerged in the U.S., India, and Brazil. [3]

Variant of Concern 

COVID-19 Variant

There is current evidence that variants of concern:- 

  • have heightened transmissibility
  • cause more severe disease (increased hospitalizations and mortality)
  • decrease effectiveness of treatment
  • increase chances of failure to detect the virus via diagnostic tests
  • significantly lower the neutralization by antibodies formed through the administration of COVID-19 vaccines or previous COVID-19 infection [3, 6]

These variants may necessitate the modification of current COVID-19 diagnostic tests, vaccines, or treatment. [3, 6]

Some of these variants were detected initially in South Africa, Brazil, and California. [6]  

Variant of High Consequence

Variants that fall under this category significantly reduce the efficacy of preventative measures and medical countermeasures (vaccines, diagnostic tests, treatment) compared to previously circulating variants. [3

There is evidence of:-  

  • detection failure via diagnostic tests
  • lowered effectiveness of vaccine-induced protection
  • increase in severe disease or hospitalizations. [3

Thankfully, none of the COVID-19 variants have reached this stage as of now. [3

How Dangerous Are the Current COVID-19 Variants? 

There are a few strains that can spread more quickly and could be associated with more severe disease. [3

For example, a variant detected initially in South Africa (B.1.351) has a 50% increased transmission rate. This variant can also reduce the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. [3

Another variant first reported in the U.K. (B.1.1.7) also has a 50% increased transmission rate. Furthermore, there is a possibility for more severe symptoms and increased hospitalization due to this variant. However, this variant minimally impacts the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. [3

Other than being able to spread faster, some mutations may also make the virus more deadly. Surprisingly, this is not as advantageous to the virus as it might seem. This is because the virus will not spread as quickly if all its victims die quickly. [7

Despite this, we should not treat these deadlier strains lightly. COVID-19 can lead to death and severe illness, no matter the strain or variant type. Hence, we must bar the spread of COVID-19 to prevent further loss of lives. 

Do The COVID-19 Vaccines Work Against New Strains? 

Fortunately, the COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for administration will still provide some form of protection from infection by these new strains. [8

Vaccines will teach your body how to protect itself from the COVID-19 virus by inducing a broad immune response. This response involves a range of cells and antibodies that can target new strains or variants to a certain degree, should they enter your body. [8

Because of this, any mutations or changes in the virus will NOT make the vaccines utterly ineffective against them. [8]  

Organizations and agencies worldwide are laboring tirelessly to study how these variants impact the effectiveness of vaccines. If a vaccine becomes less effective against specific variants, the vaccine can be modified to confer sufficient protection from the new variants. [8]  

Will There Be New Variants or Strains in The Future? 

Yes, as long as the COVID-19 virus is still spreading, new variants and strains will continue to emerge. 

Whenever the virus infects a new person, it has the chance to mutate and change. The virus generates copies of itself once inside the host and makes mistakes while doing so. If the COVID-19 virus infects enough people, a new variant with particular strengths will eventually emerge. [7

Are There Additional Requirements or Measures Now That There Are New Variants? 

The current preventative measures continue to be effective whether or not they are associated with new variants. There is no concrete evidence that new stains or variants make these measures any less effective. [9

Hence, you should follow your health authorities’ preventative measures and guidelines strictly. They continue to be the most effective and essential methods in hindering the transmission of these variants. [9

How Can We Prevent The Emergence of New COVID-19 Variants or Strains? 

It is crucial to mitigate the spread of the virus. Each time the virus infects a new host, there is a chance it will mutate and possibly form a new strain or variant. Hence, you and I can prevent the further emergence of new variants by working together to stop the spread of COVID-19. [8]  

Some preventative measures include:-

  • Regular hand washing
  • Practicing social distancing
  • Wearing a mask when necessary
  • Avoiding crowds or closed settings
  • Getting the COVID-19 vaccine once it is available to you [8]  

Why Should I Get Vaccinated Even Though There Are New Variants of The COVID-19 Virus? 

Vaccines (link the 10 things you need to know one) play a crucial war in ceasing the spread of COVID-19. 

Say you do not have any contraindications to getting vaccinated (such as severe allergy to an ingredient in the vaccine). In that case, the CDC has already confirmed this:

The benefits of getting vaccinated outweigh any possible risks. 

You and I should use all the available resources and tools to battle this virus! Getting vaccinated will slow and hinder the transmission of the virus from one person to another—the slower the spread, the lesser the chances of viral mutation and new variant formation. 

Bottomline: New COVID-19 Variants

In a nutshell, a few of these new variants may be deadlier or more dangerous than initial strains. 

But don’t raise the white flag. The battle isn’t lost yet! You and I still play vital roles in waging war against this virus. We can prevent the emergence of new variants and stop the spread of current ones via our day-to-day actions. 

Undeniably, we don’t know the answer to everything. Though many questions remain mysteries, experts are working together to learn more about the virus each day. In the meantime, let’s protect each other and play our part in curbing the spread of COVID-19!

Disclaimer: This article is a guide and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have any doubts or concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare professional. They are able to help you make informed decisions and clarify some of your questions.

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