If you’ve been following the coronavirus headlines lately, you’ve likely been hearing a lot about new coronavirus variants. As a result, you may be freaking out, experiencing pandemic fatigue or be just plain confused.
COVID Variants, Vaccines and Staying Safe: What You Should Know
Doctors have called some coronavirus variants highly concerning — but there are things you can do to protect yourself against infection, like getting the vaccine when you’re eligible and doubling down on your masking and distancing habits.
We consulted medical experts Dr. Robert Siegel, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford, and Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at UCSF, as well as CDC guidance, on what you need to know about variants.
What is a variant?
Viruses are constantly changing. When a virus hijacks a host cell and replicates, mistakes occur so that the genetic makeup of the copies isn’t exactly the same as the original. These errors are called mutations.
“The more times that the virus copies itself, the more viruses that are made, the more mistakes that are made,” Siegel said. “Variants are just [viruses with] collections of mutations. So they inevitably arise as long as there's lots of people that are infected making virus.”
Scientists can track variants by looking for a distinct set of inherited mutations. In addition to an alphanumeric string, coronavirus variants are often referred to by the part of the world where they were first observed.
Siegel says the emergence of variants is “basically normal for all viruses.”
Do variants change the way the virus behaves?
Many variants have no effect on the behavior of a virus. But as mutations accumulate, errors can occur in parts of the virus’s genetic material that alter its physical properties and behavior.
These changes may affect where and how strongly a virus binds to host cells, its ability to evade an immune response, how fast it can copy itself or how easy it is for someone to transmit the virus to another person.
Thus, some variants may persist longer, become more infectious or be more resistant to antibodies or vaccines than others. If you think about it, we’re all familiar with this basic truth about viruses because it’s why the annual flu vaccine is more effective one year and less in another year.
Like all viruses, those that cause the flu change constantly — in fact, says Siegel, influenza makes far more mistakes when it copies than the coronavirus. The more errors a virus makes, the more mutations and the more variants.
Each year, scientists around the world track them to see which influenza viruses are making people sick, how quickly or widely they’re spreading, and how well the previous year’s vaccine works against them. More than 100 countries participate in this work, tracking thousands of test samples of the virus.
Every February, the WHO gathers representatives from its own and the world’s top labs and national academies and recommends which viruses should be included in the annual flu vaccine. Each country then makes its own final decision. But it’s difficult to predict the spread and timing of flu viruses, so each year’s flu vaccine is more or less effective depending on factors such as what influenza virus shows up and when.
Are coronavirus variants more dangerous than the original virus?
In short, it depends on the variant.
Siegel says the vast majority of coronavirus variants don’t increase the virus’s ability to spread. Some, like the British B.1.1.7 variant, have been shown to be more contagious than the original coronavirus. Others, like the South African and Brazilian variants, have mutations that research suggests make them somewhat more resistant to some treatments or vaccines.
More transmissible variants, Dr. Siegel says, are potentially of greater concern because of how rapidly they can spread through the population.
For a virus, he said, “Winning the game is not necessarily making a variant that is more dangerous, it's just making a variant that can spread more.”
Vaccines used in the U.S. appear to protect against all known coronavirus variants -- even more antibody-resistant variants -- and the key to ending the pandemic is controlling the spread.
Chin-Hong says the British variant is probably the most troubling of the variants out there. “It seems to be the bulldog of the variants,” he says. “Wherever it goes, it sets up shop and it bullies all the other variants.”
Scientists are still studying why, but Chin-Hong says one hypothesis is that people infected with the B.1.1.7 variant appear to shed the virus for longer and have more copies of the virus.
Do vaccines work well against variants?
In short, yes.
“The vaccines are so wildly effective,” Siegel said. “They produce such a strong immune response that the variants that exist now, even the ones that are slightly better at spreading, they all seem to be susceptible to the vaccine.”
While a handful of variants, particularly the South African variant, appear to be somewhat more resistant, data suggest vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. are still effective at preventing serious illness and death.
“They still seem to be able to keep people out of the ICU,” Siegel said, “still seem to be able to keep people from dying.”
Chin-Hong adds that two vaccines not authorized for use in the U.S., AstraZeneca and Novavax, may be less effective against some variants.
Overall, how concerned are health experts about new variants? What can I do to protect myself?
The CDC classifies coronavirus variants into three categories: Variant of Interest (VOI), Variant of Concern (VOC), and Variant of High Consequence (VOHC). There are currently no VOHC and five VOCs in the United States.
The variant that he’s most worried about, Siegel says, “is the variant that we haven't seen yet.” He says that’s because we’re only now at the point with vaccine and infection rates that an immune resistant variant could emerge from the rest. Scientists call these “escape variants.”
He adds that with less than half the population vaccinated, there’s still a real risk for unvaccinated people to get the coronavirus unless they continue to protect themselves with masking and social distancing.
“Not only do they have to be just as safe as they were,” he said. “They actually have to be safer because they might encounter a strain that's more contagious.”
With more transmissible variants like B.1.1.7 out there, Chin-Hong said that compared to a year ago, a person in their 30s is more likely to catch the virus from an infected person if you share an elevator. Unless, that is, you’re vaccinated.
“Silver lining number one is the vaccines will work,” Chin-Hong said. “Silver lining number two is we know what to do even if we don't have a vaccine.”
“With the finish line so close at hand in terms of if you're going to get vaccinated in two weeks,” Siegel added, “You don't want to get infected now.”