What do I need to know about the COVID-19 variants?

Coronavirus Updates

FILE – This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which cause COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. Viruses are constantly mutating, with coronavirus variants circulating around the globe. (NIAID-RML via AP)

(ABC4) — For many, the emergence of the COVID-19 vaccine has been a light at the end of the tunnel. But with new variants popping up around the world, many questions remain.

Here are some common questions about the variants and what we know at this point.

What are the variants and what do we know about them?

(Cheryl Gerber/Courtesy of Johnson & Johnson via AP)

The CDC lists three main variants.

In the United Kingdom, a variant referred to as B.1.1.7 has a high number of mutations. It was first detected in September 2020 and has since spread to countries around the world, including the United States and Canada. According to Charla Haley, Public Information Officer with the Utah Department of Health, the Utah Public Health Lab has identified two Utah residents with that variant.

What we know about the new COVID-19 variant

In South Africa, a variant called 1.351 has emerged. It was originally discovered in early October. There have been cases outside of South Africa, and as of Thursday, two cases of this variant were detected in South Carolina. According to the Associated Press, the two people infected with the variant do not have a recent history of travel. This means that it appears there are more undetected cases within the state.

In Brazil, a variant called P.1 has appeared. It was first discovered in four people from Brazil who tested positive for the virus in a Japanese airport. According to the CDC, this variant contains mutations that could make it difficult to be recognized by antibodies. Haley says one case of the variant was recently found in Minnesota.

Though these variants were first detected in other parts of the world, Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, Chief of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health, said in a press conference Thursday that variants are occurring all the time. The ones with high transmissibility are the ones that stick around.

“It’s not necessarily that these things are coming in from abroad- with the levels of transmission that we have here, we’re going to have our own homegrown variants arising as well,” he says.

What are the characteristics of these variants?

Though the three variants appear to spread quickly and more easily than other variants, there is no proof that they cause more severe versions of the illness or carry an increased risk of death, the CDC says. However, the ability to spread quickly could mean more hospitalizations, deaths, and fewer public resources available to treat people, according to the CDC.

“Even if the virus isn’t intrinsically more severe disease-causing, if you’re getting more people infected, you’re going to have more deaths just because of the numbers,” Dr. Swaminathan says.

The CDC says it expects that the United Kingdom variant will become the dominant variant in the United States by March.

Is the vaccine effective against these variants?

(Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

“We have no reason to suspect the vaccine will not be effective in fighting the variants, but it remains to be seen just how much protection the vaccine will provide,” Haley says.

Additionally, CDC studies suggest that the variants will respond to current vaccines. They are currently conducting studies to investigate this.

Novavax COVID-19 vaccine works, but less so against variants

What precautions should I take to stay safe?

According to Haley, the same precautions that have been recommended thus far are being recommended to protect against the new variants at this time: “wear masks when you’re out in public or around others, physically distance, stay home when you’re sick, and wash your hands often.”

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, wearing two masks is likely more effective than one in avoiding the spread of COVID-19 and its variants.

Dr. Russell Vinik, Internal Medicine Specialist at the University of Utah, says that some may choose to double-mask but says even wearing one mask is very important.

“For people who want to do everything they can and take those extra precautions, or people who put themselves in those potentially higher risk situations, like riding public transportation, double masking might be helpful,” he says. “But certainly more than anything, just wear a mask and wear it properly.”

When can Utahns expect their dose of the COVID-19 vaccine?

If I’ve had COVID-19 in the past, am I immune to the new variants?

The immune response appears to still be effective with the new variants, Jenny Johnson from the Utah Department of Health, says.

However, the variants and virus that causes COVID-19 are still new, she adds, so we are learning more and more everyday about how the virus behaves and how effective the vaccines are.

How would I know if I am sick with a COVID-19 variant? How are variants detected?

You wouldn’t know if you were infected with a variant unless the Public Health Department lets you know, Johnson says.

According to Johnson, the Department of Health’s state lab has been doing genetic sequencing on samples from the beginning of the pandemic with the expectation that variants would pop up.

“If we identify a variant in this sequencing, we will alert the public health jurisdiction where an individual lives so they can let the person know how critically important it is that they isolate and notify their close contacts to quarantine,” she says. “Because the variants appear to be much more easily spread, isolation and quarantine are even more important behaviors to follow so others are not exposed.”

Dr. Swaminathan says that nationally, current knowledge about the variants is pretty spotty, as detection of the variants is done mainly at state departments of health and private research laboratories at this point.

“We don’t have really a coordinated national system for high-level detection… we do not have a national genomic surveillance system,” he says.

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