What you need to know about the new COVID-19 variants

What you need to know about the new COVID-19 variants

[3 min read]

You have likely heard news reports about the new variants of the COVID-19 virus. Understandably, a lot of people have questions, and want to know whether or not they should be concerned. As with most things involving COVID-19 and this pandemic, information about the virus – including these new variants – continues to be gathered and evolve. We’re here to share the facts, based on what’s known today, so that you can be informed and know where to go for more information.  

What are variants and why do they happen?

All viruses change or “mutate” over time, resulting in the creation of new variants and versions of themselves. Since COVID-19 was first identified more than a year ago, it’s estimated that thousands of mutations have occurred. This process is normal and happens for a variety of reasons. Sometimes variants disappear, and other times they thrive.

What are the new variants of COVID-19 and how are they different?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that there are multiple variants of the COVID-19 virus globally. Researchers are currently studying:

  • B.1.1.7 : This variant was first identified in the UK and was found in the U.S. in December 2020.
  • B.1.351: This variant was first found in South Africa and was detected in the U.S. in early 2021. It shares some mutations with the UK variant, but emerged independently.
  • P.1: This variant first emerged in Brazil and was found in the U.S. in early 2021. Researchers believe that this variant contains additional mutations that might affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies.

At this time, there is no evidence that infections as a result of these variants are more severe. However, we know there is increased transmissibility, and that could lead to more cases, additional surges, hospitalizations and sadly, deaths.

Are current vaccines effective with these new variants?

The two mRNA vaccines available right now in the U.S. are thought to be effective at protecting against the new variants, although more research must be done to determine this.

“Vaccine efficacy on the new variants is being closely monitored and studied,” says Walter Urba, M.D., director of cancer research at Providence Cancer Institute in Oregon. “However, the research is promising and does suggest that the vaccines can help to reduce the number of infections and cases of severe disease as a result of these new variants.”

What can I do to protect myself?

There are several things we can all do to protect ourselves and others. The best safety measures continue to be frequent hand-washing, masking and social distancing. The presence of these variants also means it is more important than ever to get vaccinated, when you become eligible. Vaccination is key to achieving herd immunity (or community immunity) and putting an end to the pandemic.

What is Providence doing to monitor these variants?

We continue to monitor and study these new variants. For example, our genomics lab in Portland, Ore. watches for increased spread of these variants and looks for evidence of new ones. We have also found that our testing capabilities can detect all the current variants.

Where can I learn more?

You can learn more about the COVID-19 variants and how to stay safe by following the CDC website.

 

Related resources

How real-time data informs decision-making during COVID-19

New coronavirus strain: What you need to know