COVID-19: WHAT ARE ITS VARIANTS?

COVID-19: WHAT ARE ITS VARIANTS? post thumbnail image

COVID-19: WHAT ARE ITS VARIANTS?

While the existence of new variants may be worrisome to the general public, the phenomenon is “not entirely unexpected,” Ben Lopman, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at Emory University’s school of public health in Atlanta.

“Viruses spread by replicating themselves and that replication process is imperfect,” he explained. “The virus makes mistakes sometimes. Most of those mistakes are useless or will kill the virus. Rarely but sometimes, one of those mistakes will be beneficial. It could, for example, make the virus more easy to transmit from person to person by changing its genetics in some way.”

The U.K. variant in particular, aka Alpha, which the CDC estimates has 50% increased transmission, seems to replicate more efficiently, Lopman said. This could mean that infected people are “actually producing more of the virus or shedding the virus at somewhat higher levels, and that might be what makes it more transmissible,” he added. But viruses acquiring mutations isn’t “necessarily a bad thing,” Jasmine Plummer, Ph.D., associate director of applied genomics at Cedars-Sinai medical center in Los Angeles. “(Viruses) want to survive,” she explained. “It is not in (their) best benefit to keep killing the host, meaning the person. Near the end, (the virus might) figure out a way to survive by infecting more people, but the outcome of that infection is hopefully not as severe.”

WHAT ARE VARIANTS?

Viruses constantly change through mutation and new variants of a virus that arise from these mutations, are expected to occur over time. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Occasionally, new variants emerge that can pass more easily from one person (or host) to another.

As more people have been infected during the COVID-19 pandemic, more variants have been documented. Scientists continually monitor the virus that causes COVID-19 to look for changes to the virus over time. This helps them better understand how the virus is changing and if these changes might affect how the virus spreads (transmissibility), how sick one could get (disease severity), and how well viral tests, treatments, and vaccines might work on different versions (variants) of the virus. The best way to stop variants from developing in the first place is to stop the spread of the virus.

TYPES OF VARIANTS

Scientists monitor all variants but may classify certain ones as variants of interest, concern, or high consequence based on how easily they spread, how severe their symptoms are, and how they are treated.

Some variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on healthcare resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.

Variants of Concern in the US

Alpha – B.1.1.7

First identified:  United Kingdom

Spread: Spreads much faster than other variants

Severe illness and death: May potentially cause more people to get sicker and to die

Vaccine: Currently authorized vaccines do work against this variant. Some breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people are expected but remain rare. All vaccines are particularly effective against severe illness, hospitalization, and death.

Treatments: Treatments are effective against this variant

Beta – B.1.351

First identified:  South Africa

Spread: May spread faster than other variants

Severe illness and death: Current data do not indicate more severe illness or death than other variants

Vaccine: Currently authorized vaccines do work against this variant. Some breakthrough infections are expected, but remain rare. All vaccines are particularly effective against severe illness, hospitalization and death.

Treatments: Certain monoclonal antibody treatments are less effective against this variant

 

Gamma – P.1

First identified: Japan/Brazil

Spread: Spreads faster than other variants

Severe illness and death: Current data do not indicate more severe illness or death than other variants

Vaccine:  Currently authorized vaccines do work against this variant. Some breakthrough infections are expected, but remain rare. All vaccines are particularly effective against severe illness, hospitalization and death.

Treatments: Certain monoclonal antibody treatments are less effective against this variant

 

Delta – B.1.617.2

First identified: India

Spread: Spreads much faster than other variants

Severe illness and death: May cause more severe cases than the other variants.

Vaccine: Infections happen in only a small proportion of people who are fully vaccinated, even with the Delta variant.  Some breakthrough infections are expected, but remain rare. However, preliminary evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people who do become infected with the Delta variant can spread the virus to others. All vaccines are particularly effective against severe illness, hospitalization and death.

Treatments: Certain monoclonal antibody treatments are less effective against this variant

 

ARE COVID-19 VACCINES EFFECTIVE AGAINST THE VARIANTS?

There’s no evidence yet that the virus has mutated in ways that allow it to evade vaccines completely, but the research into the shots’ efficacy against variants is ongoing. Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have all released some data on how their vaccines respond to variants. According to a recent report from the world health organization, the vaccines are effective against the Alpha variant, and it’s likely that they’re effective against the Gamma and Delta variants, as well, but the evidence at this stage is very limited. It also appears that they can reduce the risk of severe and mild to moderate illness from the Beta variant. The good news is the vaccine seems to be holding up quite well, but the contagiousness and potentially the lethality of (the delta variant), is really concerning,

WHY ARE SOME VARIANTS CONCERNING?

A variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is considered to be concerning when it increases the risk to human health. The risk to human health could be increased because a variant is able to:

  • Spread more easily
  • Cause more severe illness
  • Escape the immune protection provided by available COVID-19 vaccines or by natural infection with the virus that causes COVID-19
  • Make viral tests less accurate
  • Make some treatments less effective

SCIENTISTS HAVE A SYSTEM TO CATEGORISE VARIANTS BASED ON HOW CONCERNING THEY ARE TO THE U.S. POPULATION.

Will there be more new coronavirus variants?

Yes. As long as the coronavirus spreads through the population, mutations will continue to happen.

“New variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are detected every week,” Ray says. “Most come and go — some persist but don’t become more common; some increase in the population for a while, and then fizzle out. When a change in the infection pattern first pops up, it can be very hard to tell what’s driving the trend — changes to the virus, or changes in human behaviour. It is worrisome that similar changes to the spike protein are arising independently on multiple continents”.

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