Jan 22, 2021 9:00 AM

Author: Kylene Metzger

Different forms of COVID-19 variants are emerging. Although it sounds alarming, viruses often change through 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 Health, shared information about what is currently known. 

How variants from viruses emerge

All viruses mutate

Every time a virus replicates, new 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. These variants spread more easily.

Types of COVID-19 variants

Several types of SARS-CoV-2 variants exist, but two have received the most attention: the United Kingdom and South Africa variants. Both have different mutations and are not related to each other.

 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.
  • The variant has also been identified in Zambia. So far, it has not been found in the U.S.
  • Initial studies show that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine may be less effective against the South Africa variant, but should still effectively protect against COVID-19 due to this virus.
    • Pfizer is expected to release its own data soon, but scientists expect the Pfizer vaccine will work the same way against the South Africa variant that the Moderna vaccine does.

United Kingdom variant 

  • First emerged in the UK in September, 2020; outbreaks are growing rapidly.
  • 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.
  • The variant does not seem to cause illness that is more severe.
  • Evidence suggests that the COVID-19 vaccine works just as well against this variant.
  • Several countries, including the U.S., have reported the variant since December 2020.

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, like the UK and South African variants are, they could impact more people by increasing the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. This could overwhelm health care systems and ultimately impact the quality of care.

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

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

comments powered by Disqus

Sign Up for Weekly Health Updates

Get weekly emails of the latest news from HealthFeed.

For Patients

Find a doctor or location close to you so you can get the health care you need, when you need it