COVID Variants: What You Should Know


Since December 2020, several coronavirus variants have been identified and are under investigation. Each new variant raises questions: Are people more at risk for getting sick? Will the COVID-19 vaccines still work? Are there new or different things you should do now to stay safe?

Variants of viruses occur when there is a change — or mutation — to the virus’s genes. Ray says it is the nature of RNA viruses such as the coronavirus to evolve and change gradually. “Geographic separation tends to result in genetically distinct variants,” he says.

Mutations in viruses — including the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic — are neither new nor unexpected. Bollinger explains: “All RNA viruses mutate over time, some more than others. For example, flu viruses change often, which is why doctors recommend that you get a new flu vaccine every year.”

What is a variant of concern?

Coronavirus variants are classified in different categories by organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A variant of interest is a coronavirus variant that, compared with earlier forms of the virus, has genetic characteristics that predict greater transmissibility, evasion of immunity or diagnostic testing, or more severe disease.

A variant of concern has been observed to be more infectious, and is more likely to cause breakthrough infections or reinfections in those who are vaccinated or previously infected. These variants are more likely to cause severe disease, evade diagnostic tests, or resist antiviral treatment. Alpha, beta, gamma, delta and omicron variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus are classified as variants of concern.

A variant of high consequence is a variant for which current vaccines do not offer protection. As of now, there are no SARS-CoV-2 variants of high consequence.


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