How many variants of the coronavirus are there?

Health experts primarily concerned with 3 strains

A station passageway is crowded with commuters wearing face mask during a rush hour Friday, Jan. 8, 2021 in Tokyo. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency Thursday for Tokyo and three other prefectures to ramp up defenses against the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
A station passageway is crowded with commuters wearing face mask during a rush hour Friday, Jan. 8, 2021 in Tokyo. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency Thursday for Tokyo and three other prefectures to ramp up defenses against the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

How many variants of the coronavirus are there?

There are many circulating around the world, but health experts are primarily concerned with the emergence of three.

As a virus infects people, it can mutate as it makes copies of itself. Some mutations can be harmful to a virus, causing it to die out. Others can offer an advantage and help it spread.

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“Not every mutation is created equal,” said Mary Petrone, who studies infectious diseases at Yale University. “The virus is going to get lucky now and again.”

Monitoring variants is important because of the possibility that they could make vaccines and treatments less effective, or change the way they infect people.

A mutation early in the pandemic fueled the spread of the virus around the world, but there had been no notable changes since — until recently, said Ohio State University biologist Daniel Jones.

One of the three main variants experts are watching was discovered in the United Kingdom late last year and has been detected in dozens of countries since. Health officials initially said it didn’t seem to cause worse disease, but some newer information suggests it might — that remains unknown at the moment. It does appear to spread more easily, which could lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.