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You finally got your second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine; life is getting back to normal, but wait—what are these variants you keep hearing about? Are they contagious? Can they affect you even if you’ve been vaccinated? Keep reading for what we know about right now about COVID-19 variants.
What COVID-19 variants have been found in the U.S.?
First of all, it’s important to know what a variant is. Viruses mutate—they are constantly changing. When they do, it’s called a new variant or strain. During the COVID-19 pandemic, variants of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) have been found in the U.S. and around the world.
New coronavirus variants are classified as variants of interest, variants of concern, and variants of high consequence by the SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group (SIG). This committee was organized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and coordinates across the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), and Department of Defense (DoD). All variants are being studied and monitored by federal agencies. The goal is to define the countermeasures that need to be taken, such as vaccination, therapeutics, and diagnostics, as new strains of each category emerge. The World Health Organization (WHO) also classifies variants of interest, and those classifications may vary from those in the U.S. The WHO has begun using the Greek alphabet to describe variants, to make it easier to discuss with nonscientific audiences.
Variants of interest
The following are classified as variants of interest. These variants may potentially be less receptive to monoclonal antibody treatments and vaccines:
- B.1.526 (first detected in New York in November 2020)
- B.1.525 (first detected in New York in December 2020)
- P.2 (first detected in Brazil in April 2020)
- B.1.617 (first detected in India in February 2021)
- B.1.617.1 (first detected in India in December 2020)
- B.1.617.3 (first detected in India in October 2020)
Variants of concern
The following are classified as variants of concern. Variants of concern may spread more easily, cause more severe disease (more hospitalizations or deaths), lead to less generation of antibodies, have less efficacy in treatment or vaccines, or cause failures with diagnosis.
- B.1.1.7 (first detected in the United Kingdom)
- P.1 (first detected in Japan and Brazil)
- B.1.351 (first detected in South Africa)
- B.1.427 and B.1.429 (first detected in California)
Variants of high consequence
Variants of high consequence are associated with diagnostic failure, significantly reduced vaccine efficacy (or an unusually high number of COVID-19 cases in vaccinated people), inadequate response to treatment, and more severe illness and higher number of hospitalizations.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “a variant of high consequence would require notification to WHO under the International Health Regulations, reporting to CDC, an announcement of strategies to prevent or contain transmission, and recommendations to update treatments and vaccines.”
Currently, there are no coronavirus variants of high consequence.
How contagious are the variants?
The U.K. and South African variants may be about 50% more contagious than the strain common in the U.S. The California variant is estimated to be about 20% more contagious.
The India variant (B.1.617.2), also known as the Delta variant, is estimated to be about 40% more transmissible than the U.K. variant. It’s the most contagious variant yet, becoming the dominant strain in the U.K., and accounting for more than 6% of cases in the U.S.
Scientists are studying all aspects of variants, including how they spread and the severity of disease they cause.
How do the variants affect the current vaccines?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the currently approved COVID-19 vaccines (Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine), as well as COVID-19 vaccines in development, are expected to provide “at least some protection against new virus variants” due to their ability to generate a broad response from the immune system. SARS-CoV-2 variants should not make vaccines completely ineffective.
However, if needed, due to lower efficacy against variants, scientists can adjust the vaccines to protect against these variants. This is the same calculus that researchers use to adjust the flu shot each year to give you the best protection possible from the circulating strains.
The WHO and other organizations are studying variants and their effects on vaccines. Vaccine changes or booster shots may be needed, but all of these things need to be studied in large clinical trials.
Also, new studies are continuously underway and reporting results. For example, one recent study concluded that “the findings suggest that current vaccines and therapeutic monoclonal antibodies will remain protective against the B.1.526 variants. The findings further support the value of wide-spread vaccination.”
How do I protect myself against COVID-19 variants?
First of all, don’t wait to get vaccinated. Despite the fact that boosters may be needed later, it’s essential to get vaccinated as soon as possible—even if the vaccines may be somewhat less effective against some variants. According to the World Health Organization, “We need to use the tools we have in hand even while we continue to improve those tools. We are all safe only if everyone is safe.”
Additionally, public health officials recommend that you continue to take preventive measures against COVID-19, such as wearing a mask, washing your hands frequently, practicing social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, and sanitizing surfaces—even after getting vaccinated.
Finally, if you are planning to travel, check the CDC Travel Notice section. Recently, the CDC issued guidance to avoid travel to India and the Bahamas, stating that there is a very high level of COVID-19 in these locations and even fully vaccinated travelers could get and spread COVID-19 variants.