Variants of the COVID-19 Virus
Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of any virus are expected to occur. During this pandemic, multiple variants of the virus that cause COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally, while the Viruses are still constantly changing and becoming more diverse.
Scientists monitor these changes, including changes to the spikes on the surface of the virus and by studying these variants, they could aid in predicting how such changes to the virus might affect the way in which it spreads, and the way people get infected.
Virus variants are like a tree growing and branching out; each branch on the tree is slightly different than the other. Some variations allow the virus to spread more easily or make it resistant to treatments or vaccines. Those variants must be monitored more carefully.
Coronavirus has all its genetic material in something called RNA (ribonucleic acid). RNA has some similarities to DNA; however, they are not the same. When viruses infect you, they attach to your cells, get inside them, and make copies of their RNA, which helps them spread. While making copies of the RNA, mistakes can occur resulting in a change in the RNA, which is referred to as mutations. These changes happen randomly and accidentally, being a normal part of what happens to viruses as they multiply and spread.
These different variants may lead to diseases that alter every now and then. For example, one reason you need a flu shot every year is because influenza viruses change yearly.
Process of variant formation
Variants of Covid-19
Currently there are four notable variants:
B.1.1.7 (Alpha): It was initially detected in the United Kingdom. The mutation on the alpha variant is on the spike protein, which helps the virus infect its host. This variant was first detected in the United States in December 2020.
B.1.351 (Beta): It was initially detected in South Africa in December 2020. The beta variant appears to spread more easily than the original virus but doesn’t seem to cause heavier symptoms. This variant was first detected in the United States at the end of January 2021
P.1 (Gamma): P.1 was initially identified in travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at an airport in Japan, in early January. The gamma variant appears to be more contagious than earlier strains of the virus. This variant was first detected in the United States in January 2021.
B.1.617.2 (Delta): This variant was spotted in India in December 2020. It caused a huge surge in cases in Mid-April 2021. The highly contagious variant is now found in 43 countries including the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Singapore. The delta variant has now become a dominant strain in the U.K. due to travels made to India and community spread, leading to additional concern by causing more cases of COVID-19 in young people.
These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly compared to other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put a bigger strain on healthcare resources, leading to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.
Will vaccines still work against variants and what to expect?
Current vaccines were designed for earlier versions of the coronavirus. So far, studies suggest that the current authorized vaccines work on the circulating variants, while scientists will continue to study these and other variants.
The virus that causes COVID-19 will probably keep changing, and experts may find new variants. It is impossible to predict how those changes in the virus might affect what happens, change is just in the nature of viruses.