What You Need to Know
Viruses mutate—that’s just what they do. This phenomenon is why we have an annual flu shot—it mutates every year. Coronavirus is no different, with now thousands of variants that have already been identified.
But just as new vaccines start to roll out across the United States and elsewhere, new variants are also popping up. This leaves us with questions like: Will the vaccines recently developed still be effective on these variants? and How can we stay safe?
First things first: What are variants, and how do they develop?
When someone gets infected with a virus, it multiplies within the body to create tens of thousands of copies of the virus. However, they are not perfect copies. Like a game of telephone, the process of replicating the genetic code creates random changes in the sequence with each round of replication.
Most of these random changes are inconsequential, having no real effect on the virus as a whole. A variant is a version of the virus that has accumulated an assortment of these mutations. Every so often, there will be a mutation in a key part of the virus that will allow it to be more competitive (i.e. virulent, contagious, etc.).
This is when we get a variant that has an evolutionary edge over other versions of the virus, allowing it to become dominant. As of August 17, 2021, there are four dominant variants circulating globally that are concerning scientists—the alpha, beta, damma, and delta variants. The lambda variant is also rising in the awareness of the public and is, at present, considered a strain for the experts to keep a careful eye on, but it is not officially a “variant of concern” among the World Health Organization.
All four variants are alarming scientists because they share mutations on the spike proteins that cover the outer coat of the coronavirus and give it its characteristic bumpy shape. This mutation allows coronavirus to bind to and enter human cells more easily, making these variants more transmissible.
Let’s talk about the COVID-19 variants of concern
- Alpha variant - First detected in September 2020, a new variant of COVID-19 called B.1.1.7 was discovered in the U.K., and it spreads much faster than the other variants of coronavirus. The alpha variant arrived in the U.S. in December 2020 and remained the dominant strain until June 2021.
- How is this strain different? This variant has many mutations that make it more transmissible than the original strain. Researchers estimate that the variant is about 50% more contagious.
- Is it susceptible to the vaccine? The CDC has confirmed that the current vaccines work effectively against the alpha variant.
Worldwide, this variant accounted for about 70% of coronavirus cases as of May 2021, but has decreased to represent only 1% of cases as of August 20, 2021.
- Beta variant - The variant known as B.1.351 (and B.1.351.2, B.1.351.3) was originally discovered in South Africa in October 2020 and arrived in the U.S. in January 2021. It shares some characteristics of the alpha variant, however, it emerged independently from B.1.1.7.
- How is this strain different? The beta variant is also ~50% more transmissible than the original strain of COVID-19. Our natural immunity has a harder time defending against this variant with neutralizing antibodies. B1.351 is more likely than the original strain to infect the same person more than once.
- Is it susceptible to the vaccine? The vaccine is effective against the belta variant, but the variant is more likely to cause breakthrough infections of vaccinated persons. However, in the U.S., the beta variant has never been a dominant strain, and there are now an insignificant number of documented cases.
- Gamma variant - This variant, also known as P.1 (and P1.1, P1.2), was first discovered in November 2020 just outside Haneda airport in Tokyo, Japan, among four travelers from Brazil. It spread to the U.S. as early as January 2021 but accounts for only 1% of documented cases in America.
- How is this strain different? According to the CDC, P.1 contains mutations that “may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies,” much like the beta variant. It has also been reported that “studies from the E.U. suggest the gamma variant may cause more hospitalizations and deaths compared to the original strain.”
- Is it susceptible to the vaccine? Like B.1.351, the gamma variant’s ability to evade the defense of antibodies impacts the efficacy of the vaccine, making breakthrough cases more likely.
- Delta variant - The delta variant, identified as B.1.617.2, was first found in India in October 2020 and was first discovered in the U.S. in March 2021. After its spread to the U.S., it has become a dominant strain and begun mutating into several sub variants known as “delta plus” (or AY.1, AY.2, AY.3) Delta and delta plus variants account for up to 95% of infections in the U.S (13% of which are delta plus variants specifically) as of August 2021.
- How is this strain different? Delta is the most contagious variant we’ve seen as of July 2021. A report from Dr. Richter with ABC News cites the CDC as saying that delta is “about twice as infectious as the original strain,” leading to significantly higher viral loads among people who become infected than other variants. “This contributed to the CDC changing its guidance on masks for vaccinated people.”
- Is it susceptible to the vaccine? The vaccines do protect against the delta variant, preventing the most severe forms, but it is important to remain cautious after becoming vaccinated, as breakthrough infections can still occur.
Best Practices to Protect Yourself from COVID-19 variants:
Robert Bollinger, M.D., M.P.H. says that none of the new variants call for any new prevention strategies for now. “We need to continue doing the basic precautions that we know work to interrupt spread of the virus.”
GET VACCINATED. While the antibody response may be limited, scientists are still confident that the vaccines will be effective against the existing variants. The benefits conferred can still dramatically decrease the number of hospitalizations that are occurring and slow the spread between vaccinated individuals. According to Stuart Ray, M.D., “99% of COVID-19 deaths are now occurring in unvaccinated people.” Slowing the spread of COVID-19 among the population can also prevent the mutation of new, more harmful variants.
MASK UP. We’ve talked about this many times before, covering the best masks to wear while working out, the reality of masks with valves, and even how to deal with Maskne. But the thing about masks is that they work. And it’s really simple how they work—preventing the airborne transmission of COVID-19 by relegating coughing, sneezing, and even normal breathing, to just the mask wearer blocks these transmitters from reaching others. And the same goes for other mask-wearers around you. Masking is especially important for folks who are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated.
Just how effective is masking? One recent study examined deaths attributed to COVID-19 across 198 countries and concluded that those countries which normalize mask-wearing had a statistically significant drop in death rates. That’s nothing to balk at.
With these new variants, many doctors and public health officials are recommending the public consider the quality of their masks. The bandana, gaiter, or homemade mask does not confer the same protection as a laboratory-tested mask. “The existence of more-transmissible viruses emphasizes the importance of us upping our game and doing not more of the same but better of the same,” said Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
WASH OFTEN. This one is simple. The CDC recommends washing your hands often, and for at least 20 seconds each time. Especially after instances where you’ve been in the public, blowing your nose, sneezing, coughing, etc.
CONTINUE PRACTICING SOCIAL DISTANCING. The CDC recently published the results of a report which performed 1,000 simulations to quantify the efficacy of social distancing.
“We considered the effects of social distancing interventions over the first 100 days of the epidemic and assumed that the social distancing interventions started on day 50...We noted that reducing the contacts of adults >60 years of age averted only 18% of cases for the whole population, but averted 50% of cases for this age group. Also, this intervention reduced the overall number of hospitalizations by 30% and reduced deaths by 39% for the whole population, and hospitalizations and deaths by >49% for adults >60 years of age. Adding a social distancing intervention in children slowed the epidemic curve, and reduced the overall hospitalizations by >64%, and by >53% across all age groups.”
When it comes to social distancing be sure to avoid the following with anyone who is not a member of your household:
- Indoor gatherings
- Shared surfaces like swings or benches
- Contact sports
- Anything closer than 6 feet of distance
If dining out, check your restaurant’s COVID-19 safety procedures, being mindful to prioritize the protection of the staff who are serving you. And avoid crowded public parks, pools, and indoor spaces.
Remember that the more people mask up, the better chance we have at flattening the curve. And that doesn’t just mean that fewer people will end up in the hospital; if we can have fewer instances of COVID-19 and its variants, it means we can lessen the chance of mutations forming before we can vaccinate against them.
Let's work together to keep our loved ones safe, to keep our communities intact, and to keep moving toward life in a post-pandemic world.