What exactly is a variant of COVID-19 and where are they spreading around the world?

Researchers believe vaccine will be effective on new variants

What exactly is a variant of COVID-19 and where are they spreading around the world?
What exactly is a variant of COVID-19 and where are they spreading around the world?

A little over a year ago the world was introduced to what would soon become a very out of control and very deadly virus -- COVID-19. Fast forward a year and we’re now dealing with new variants that are keeping scientists and health professionals busy.

Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time, the Center for Disease Control said.

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Researchers say that sometimes new variants of a virus can emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and stick around.

The CDC said the virus that causes COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus, a large family of viruses.

Since the coronavirus was first discovered, multiple new variants of the virus have been documented in the United States and around the world.

Here are the variants of COVID-19 currently circulating around the globe from the CDC website:

  • The United Kingdom identified a variant called B.1.1.7 with a large number of mutations in the fall of 2020. This variant spreads more easily and quickly than other variants. In January 2021, experts in the U.K. reported that this variant may be associated with an increased risk of death compared to other variant viruses, but more studies are needed to confirm this finding. It has since been detected in many countries around the world. This variant was first detected in the United States at the end of December 2020.
  • In South Africa, another variant called B.1.351 emerged independently of B.1.1.7. Originally detected in early October 2020, B.1.351 shares some mutations with B.1.1.7. Cases caused by this variant were reported in the U.S. at the end of January 2021.
  • In Brazil, a variant called P.1 emerged and was first identified in travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at an airport in Japan in early January. This variant contains a set of additional mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies. This variant was first detected in the U.S. at the end of January 2021.

The newly discovered variants seem to spread more easily and quickly, the CDC said. The easily transmitted viruses can lead to more cases of COVID-19 and add additional strain on the health care system.

Dr. Todd Husty, the medical director for Seminole County, said while the variants discovered in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil are more transmissible, they aren’t putting people at greater risk.

“We don’t think that it’s making more serious illness, which is good,” he said. “Could that happen with other variants? Sure. It could. And that’s why we need to keep looking for variants.”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, with the CDC, said the agency is monitoring the emergence of variants nationwide through surveillance efforts.

“We are now asking for surveillance from every single state, at least 750 surveillance strains per week. And we have seven collaborations across universities to scale up surveillance to the thousands per week so that we can get a foothold to see whether these projections of having this take hold by the middle of March or middle to late March are actually true,” Walensky said.

So, how do we protect ourselves from these new variants?

By doing the same things we’ve been doing for the past year: Maintaining social distance, wearing masks and washing hands on a regular basis. These steps become even more critical in the wake of more transmissible variants.

Vaccines are also key to stopping the spread, experts said.

“So far, studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination with currently authorized vaccines recognize these variants,” health officials said. “This is being closely investigated and more studies are underway.”

Experts believe, as of now, the vaccines currently being administered for COVID-19 will also help protect people from the new variants.

“So far, we’re pretty convinced that the people that are vaccinated, like myself, are still immune to coronavirus, to COVID-19,” Husty said. “We haven’t seen the entire spike protein change. There might [have] been a little change here, a little change there but it would really take changing the majority of the spike protein on the virus.”

“Viruses don’t mutate unless they replicate,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said in January.