Updated: Nov 17, 2021
Graphic of the various Covid-19 variants.
COVID-19 strains, or variants, have caused significant disruption to everyday activities, workflows, and other aspects of life around the globe. While masks offer some protection, nearly all medical professionals recommend the COVID-19 vaccine as the best way to protect yourself and your family from the effects of this dangerous disease. As new variants of COVID-19 emerge, it is important to separate fact from fiction and to dispel some of the uncertainty surrounding these new threats to public health. Here is what you need to know about the COVID variants.
What are variants?
Viruses typically mutate over time into different forms, which are known as variants. These mutations occur because of minor changes in the genetic code that occur during replication, the process by which viruses multiply. Some of these variants are substantially similar to the original strain. If the virus changes enough, however, it may become a new variant that has somewhat different effects on the health of living creatures.
What are variants of concern?
If a variant of an existing viral strain appears to present significant risks to public health, the World Health Organization may designate the new versions of the virus as variants of concern. This signifies that these viral variants could pose serious risks to humans that may be somewhat different than the risks associated with the originally reported form of the virus.
What Are the Variants of COVID-19?
The strain of the COVID-19 virus that was most common in 2020 was known as the Alpha strain. This form of the disease was moderately easy to transmit and posed serious health risks for those who contracted a severe form of the disease. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, several other variants of concern have been identified and tracked:
• Beta first appeared in South Africa in August 2020 and was responsible for a surge in COVID-19 cases in that area. The Beta variant, however, does not appear to be significantly more dangerous or transmissible than the original Alpha strain.
• Gamma appears to have originated in the country of Brazil and in the Amazon. It was first reported in December 2020 and shows some significant differences from both Alpha and Beta variants of the COVID-19 virus.
• The Delta variant is one of the most dangerous variants of COVID-19 reported thus far. It is believed to be 55 percent more transmissible than the original Alpha strain and can cause a wider range of symptoms, including hearing impairment and increased risk of hospitalization for those who have been infected with the Delta variant of COVID-19.
• The Lambda variant was first spotted in Peru in August 2020 and has increasingly been blamed for COVID-19 infections in South America and elsewhere in the world. The Lambda variant is believed to be responsible for 81 percent of the cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in Peru between April 2021 and July 2021.
Each of these variants and any future mutations of the COVID-19 virus could potentially pose serious health risks to individuals who have not been vaccinated against the illness. Although the vaccinations were created before many of these variants existed, it is still the best way to protect yourself from the disease.
Can COVID-19 tests identify variants?
Scientists believe that testing procedures may be somewhat less reliable in patients infected with a variant other than Alpha. Tests that use reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction processes may not be as effective in spotting variants of COVID-19 as they are in identifying the Alpha variant. This may lead to increased use of rapid antigen tests to determine if a patient is infected with COVID-19. If you are feeling symptoms of COVID, it is still better to get tested regardless of the variant.
How do variants affect vaccine effectiveness?
In general, vaccines work by alerting your immune system to the threat posed by certain viruses. This allows your body to respond more quickly to exposure and potential infection by viruses against which you have been vaccinated. A vaccine cannot prevent you from infection entirely. Instead, it makes it much more likely that your immune system will be able to combat the viral infection during its early stages, which can significantly reduce the symptoms for you and the likelihood of transmitting the virus to others with whom you come in contact.
Some medical researchers are concerned that the variants of COVID-19 may be different enough to reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine. Public Health England, for instance, has found that the vaccine is significantly less effective against the Delta variant of COVID-19 than against the Alpha variant after one dose or two doses.
What can you do to protect yourself?
If you have received the COVID-19 vaccination, you have already done the most important thing to prevent serious illness that could result from COVID-19 or any of its variants. You may also want to wear a mask in public places or anywhere that you might be exposed to COVID-19. Staying up to date with the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization can also provide you with the most current guidance for preventing the spread of COVID-19. This can help you to manage your risk of contracting these variants and can help you stay healthier and safer now and in the future.