Mar 16, 2021 9:00 AM

Author: Kylene Metzger

Updated on March 16, 2021, with recent developments in variant research.

Different versions, or variants, of the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) are emerging around the world. Although it sounds alarming, viruses always change via mutation. As scientists work to learn more about these variants and how they may impact the United States, Stephen Goldstein, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Human Genetics at University of Utah, shared information about what is currently known. 

How variants from viruses emerge

All viruses mutate

Every time a virus replicates, errors (mutations) occur in its genetic material. This is normal—and it’s how variants arise. Usually, the changes either have no impact or are harmful to the virus. But once in a while, there are changes that give the virus an advantage. This is what has happened with the SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern.

Scientists are studying these variants closely to determine whether they spread more easily. They are also investigating how effective today’s COVID-19 vaccines are against the variants and whether people who have already had COVID-19 could become infected with the variants.

Types of COVID-19 variants

Several SARS-CoV-2 variants have been identified. The most well-known variants are variants that were first discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa. Recently, a variant from Brazil has received attention. Each variant arose independently and all have unique mutations as well as mutations in common.

United Kingdom variant

  • First emerged in the UK in September 2020.
  • Has an unusually large number of mutations.
  • Preliminary evidence suggests that people infected with this variant have a higher viral load and that the variant spreads more rapidly.
  • New evidence suggests this variant may cause a small increase in disease severity.
  • The variant continues to increase in prevalence in the United States.
  • Studies suggest the UK variant doesn’t have a major impact on vaccine efficacy.
  • Several countries, including the U.S., have reported the variant since December 2020.

South Africa variant

  • First emerged in October 2020.
  • Spreads more easily and quickly than other variants.
  • There is no evidence at this time that it causes more severe illness or increases risk of death.
  • Very few cases of the variant have been found in the U.S.
  • Studies are currently testing whether today’s COVID-19 vaccines work just as well against this variant.
  • Lab studies suggest the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines may have slightly reduced efficacy against this variant.
  • Moderna is currently testing a booster shot designed specifically against the South Africa variant and Pfizer is expected to begin similar studies shortly.
  • Even if these vaccines don’t work as well at preventing mild-to-moderate disease, protection against severe disease and death is expected to remain strong.
  • A Phase 3 clinical trial showed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine did not work quite as well at preventing asymptomatic disease. However, the vaccine was just as effective against hospitalization and death.

Brazilian variant

  • First emerged in January 2021.
  • It shares some critical mutations with the South Africa variant.
  • The variant was identified in the U.S. at the end of January, 2021; very few cases are confirmed.
  • Studies are currently testing vaccine efficacy, but it doesn’t appear to have a major impact.
    • Johnson & Johnson conducted part of its vaccine trial in Brazil and reported no issues with vaccine efficacy.
    • Pfizer and Moderna believe their vaccines retain high efficacy against this variant.

How variants are discovered

Variants are discovered by taking a swab from an infected patient, extracting genetic material from virus that is in the sample, and using sequencing equipment to read the genetic code. This is how testing laboratories in the UK found that country’s COVID-19 variant. Goldstein describes their viral genome sequencing program as the best in the world. Programs like this one also monitor the spread of variants within the population.

Potential impact on health care systems

When a variant is more transmissible, it could impact more people by rapidly increasing the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. This could overwhelm health care systems and ultimately impact the quality of care.

Because of this, “a virus that’s more contagious but does not cause more severe illness is worse than a virus that’s not more contagious but does cause more severe illness,” says Goldstein.

COVID-19 variants and vaccines

Health care professionals have confidence that the vaccines are going to be effective against today’s COVID-19 variants. However, vaccine efficacy could lesson as more variants arise and accumulate additional mutations over time.

How to protect yourself against COVID-19 variants

The best way to keep from getting infected with the new variants is to practice rigorous intervention. This means continuing to follow COVID-19 safety protocols but improving upon them. This includes physical distancing, wearing a face mask, staying home when sick, frequently washing hands, avoiding public places, and avoiding being indoors with people outside your household. Those who have the opportunity to get vaccinated are encouraged to do so.

“The better job we do at slowing down COVID-19 transmission with precautionary measures, the more time that gives us to get more people vaccinated,” Goldstein says. This will help keep new variants from emerging. 

Kylene Metzger

Public Affairs

covid-19 coronavirus variant UK variant South Africa variant vaccine

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