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What to know about the latest COVID variants

Health officials are keeping a close eye on the new COVID variants that have been detected in the US and around the world.
Touro Family Medicine Physician Dr. Meredith Maxwell discusses what we need to know about the new variants.

Why do viruses mutate?

Viruses are prone to mutations. Indeed, all genetic material, including that of humans, can mutate when mistakes occur during replication.

A mutation of a virus occurs when there is a change in its genetic sequence. This creates variation and drives virus evolution.

Mutations lead to changes in the proteins that are encoded in the viral genetic code. These changes can either be advantageous, harmful, or neutral.

What are COVID variants?

Sometimes, people use the term “strain” to refer to a mutated virus, but that term doesn’t apply here. The virus which causes COVID-19 – SARS-CoV-2 – is a mutated strain of coronavirus, which is a family of viruses. When SARS-CoV-2 mutates, the resulting mutations are known as “variants,” which are still considered a part of the SARS-CoV-2 strain. All types of SARS-CoV-2 can cause COVID-19 infection.

What are the different variants that have been identified?

Three variants have emerged worldwide:

  • UK variant. Early research suggests that this variant spreads more easily and rapidly among people. The variant has been detected in many countries, including the U.S.
  • South Africa variant. Early research suggests that this variant is associated with higher amounts of virus in the body (viral load), which might make it easier for the variant to spread among people. The variant has been detected in a few other countries. Some evidence suggests that this variant might be less vulnerable to antibodies that can neutralize COVID-19.
  • Nigeria variant. Some evidence suggests that this variant might spread more easily among people and be less vulnerable to antibodies generated by a previous COVID-19 infection or a COVID-19 vaccine.

Will the variants affect the vaccine efficacy?

Experts believe that COVID-19 vaccines should still be effective, offering protection against the virus.

What should people do to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants?

The same precautions that lower your risk of COVID-19 can help protect you against COVID-19 variants. To protect yourself and your loved ones:

  • stay six feet apart from people from other households
  • always wear a well-fitting, 2-3 layer mask over your nose and mouth when you’re around people from other households, both indoors and outdoors
  • limit the time that you spend in indoor spaces, especially in spaces with poor ventilation
  • stay away from crowds, indoors and outdoors
  • limit the size of indoor gatherings
  • wash your hands often, or use hand sanitizer
If you or someone you know needs a primary care provider, you can visit touro.com/findadoc or call 504.897.7777