Top 10 Facts about COVID-19 Variants
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Top 10 Facts about COVID-19 Variants

You may have heard by now that the virus that causes COVID-19 is mutating and that new variants of the virus are emerging. Initially, this news is very frightening, as—based on case counts nationwide—we do not yet have a good handle on the first SARS-CoV-2 virus. It may be helpful to get all of the facts.

  1. Viruses constantly change through mutation. New variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. New variants can emerge and disappear or emerge and persist. A new variant is not necessarily “worse” than the original.
  2. Multiple variants have been documented in the United States and globally during the pandemic. Right now, there are three major variants the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are monitoring. They have emerged in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Nigeria.
  3. The UK variant, called B117, which was first detected in September, has been found as close as Saratoga Springs. The South African variant, B.1.351, was first spotted in November. 
  4. A new variant is discovered through gene sequencing. Some of Vermont’s positive COVID-19 tests are being sent to the CDC to check for the new variant.  
  5. Genetic analyses are helping us understand how changes to the virus might affect how it spreads and what happens to people who are infected with it. Scientists are working to answer many questions about each of the newly emerged variants, including how easily it spreads and whether there is a difference in the severity of the illness it causes. At this time, there is no evidence that any of the variants cause more severe illness or increased risk of death.
  6. The UK and South African variants do appear to spread more easily and quickly. This is concerning. If the variant spreads more easily, it can infect more people and cause more illness and death. 
  7. We don’t yet know how widely the variants have spread or precisely how the illnesses they cause differ from the original or each other.
  8. The CDC and others are most interested in determining whether the variants can be detected by currently available viral tests, whether they will respond to the medicines being used to treat COVID-19, and whether the variants will change the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines that are available and in development.
  9. Most experts believe—due to the nature of the immune response—that the vaccines will remain effective, even against the new variants of COVID-19.
  10. The same mitigation measures we have been urging throughout the pandemic remain as our best protection against both the original and emerging COVID-19 viruses. Do not socialize with those outside your household. Leave home for essential reasons only. When you do leave home, wear a mask and stay at least 6 feet from others. Wash your hands frequently. 

This advice is especially important if new viruses are more easily spread. A brief lapse in safety or adherence to mitigation is simply more likely to result in being infected.  

Marie George, MD, FIDSA, is an infectious disease specialist at Southwestern Vermont Health Care. 

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