By the time the whole world came to terms with the new reality brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the new variants of the virus had appeared. Suddenly, new variants have become the biggest talking point among doctors and scientists. So it’s natural you want to know about them or whether the COVID-19 vaccine could provide protection against new variants. Answers to your questions are below, so scroll down to check them out.
What are variants of COVID-19?
Variants of COVID-19 are, basically, changes in the genetic sequence of the virus. In fact, it comes naturally for RNA viruses such as the coronavirus to change and evolve gradually. For that reason, geographic separation yields genetically distinct variants. That explains why we have several variants from different parts of the world, ranging from Europe to South Africa.
Although it may seem as COVID-19 variants came out of the blue, the reality is that mutations in viruses are neither new nor unexpected.
On December 31, 2020, WHO published a statement confirming they received several reports of unusual public health events, possibly due to variants of COVID-19. The most well-known variant comes from the United Kingdom, but we’re going to discuss all strains further in the article.
How did these strains happen?
When a virus infects a host cell, its genetic material needs to be copied in order to be put into new viruses. Eventually, new viruses are released from host cells. When that happens, they can infect new cells, and the cycle continues.
To copy their genetic material, viruses rely on an enzyme called polymerase. These enzymes aren’t always reliable and are prone to making mistakes. The consequence of those mistakes is a mutation in the virus’ genes. Sometimes the mutation doesn’t harm the virus, but in other cases, it does. What’s more, some mutations may help the virus.
Harmful mutations affect the ability of the virus to infect or multiply in the host cells. Most viruses don’t survive when that happens.
What happened with COVID-19 variants is that the mutation gave the newly produced virus an advantage. The variants could allow the virus to bind strongly to a host cell. Additionally, the variants can help the virus escape the immune system. When that happens, more and more people keep getting infected with new variants. For example, the United Kingdom strain became widespread within a few months only.
How many variants are there, and where are they from?
Variants of COVID-19 are demonstrated in the table below. Keep in mind these viruses are unpredictable, and new variants may appear.
As scientists work on new studies regarding novel variants, we will know more about their mechanism of action.
The CDC reports two strains identified in California, called B.1.427 and B.1.429, in February 2021. The strains were classified as VoC (variants of concern) in March 2021.
How dangerous are these variants?
A lot more research is necessary to learn how dangerous the new variants really are. What we do know is that the D614G strain has increased infectivity and transmission compared to the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection.
However, there is a risk Danish strain may result in decreased virus neutralization in humans.
On the other hand, the variant from the UK has increased the transmissibility of the virus. Basically, COVID-19 became more infectious, and new cases spread rapidly. But, according to the WHO, in January, there was no change in disease severity or occurrence in reinfection between variant cases compared to other viruses. The latest reports state otherwise, though. Research shows rapidly spreading UK variant is up to twice as deadly as others.
South African variant is associated with a higher viral load which suggests the potential for increased transmissibility. At this point, there is no clear evidence of whether the new variant is linked to more severe disease outcomes.
The most dangerous thing about the new variants is that young people are at a higher risk. When COVID-19 appeared first at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, older adults were at a higher risk of developing the infection and severe symptoms. However, today hospitals are witnessing increased visits from young adults, most of whom are not vaccinated. The UK strain is “hitting” young people pretty hard.
What can we do about the new variants? How concerned should we be?
While it’s normal for viruses to mutate and new variants to develop, it’s impossible not to worry about your health and safety.
What you can do for yourself and others is to stick to the recommended instructions, which include maintaining social distancing, washing hands regularly, avoiding crowded areas, and wearing masks. You may also want to get vaccinated.
It’s also important to avoid traveling to areas with high numbers of new cases, especially when it comes to rapidly spread variants.
Are vaccines working for these variants?
Even though current vaccines were formulated around the earlier versions of COVID-19, scientists believe they could protect against new variants too. Or, at least, most of them!
It’s useful to mention, Brazilian variant may be resisting antibodies in people who should have some form of immunity because they have caught COVID-19 and recovered.
Current vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna, may work for new variants as well, but the immune system response tends to be weaker.
People who have already received vaccines should still continue with precautionary measures such as wearing face masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing.