Feb 5, 2021, 1:58:41 PM CST Dec 1, 2023, 10:03:00 AM CST

What to know about COVID-19 variants

An infectious disease expert explains what COVID-19 variants mean for your family's health

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For a while during the COVID-19 pandemic, it felt like new variants were popping up all the time. But are these variants still around? Where do they come from and will they ever go away? We asked Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern.

What are variants of a virus?

Viruses commonly change or mutate as they spread. These changes can result in new variants, which are new versions of the virus. Variants may behave differently or have different biological characteristic than the original virus.

"Variants essentially mean that the genome (genetic material) of the virus changed a little bit," explains Dr. Kahn. "This is very common with viruses like COVID-19."

Some variants may occur and never be detected before they disappear. Other variants may emerge and spread widely.

"The longer we allow the virus to be transmitted in a population, the greater the likelihood of new variants emerging," Dr. Kahn says. "This is how viruses operate – they will continue to mutate as they spread. We have to take advantage of the opportunity we have now to reduce the spread of this virus, and that opportunity is vaccination."

What are the COVID‑19 variants?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been many different variants, including:

  • Alpha (B.1.1.7) first appeared in Great Britain in November 2020.
  • Beta (B.1.351) was identified in South Africa at the end of 2020.
  • Delta (B.1.617.2) was discovered in India in October 2020.
  • Mu (B.1.621) was first detected in Colombia in January 2021.
  • Omicron (B.1.1.529) was discovered in South Africa in November 2021.

As of publication, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifies all of these variants as "variants being monitored" (VBM).

Are COVID‑19 vaccines effective against variants?

Current COVID‑19 vaccines are effective against most variants of the virus. Booster shots are an important tool for protecting people from specific variants because they are made to protect you from the variants that have been circulating most. In general, everyone over age 5 is eligible for a booster shot. See the current CDC recommendations on when to get a COVID‑19 booster shot. Unvaccinated people, or even individuals who are only partially vaccinated, are at higher risk of infection from a variant as compared to fully vaccinated individuals.

"Vaccinated individuals are, for the most part, not getting sick, and if so, they get less sick because of the vaccine," says Dr. Kahn.

How can I keep my family healthy from COVID‑19 variants?

The best way to prevent COVID‑19 and its variants is for everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated. Everyone who is eligible should also get a booster shot.

"Don't wait to get vaccinated, and don't wait to get your booster if you're eligible," says Dr. Kahn.

If your child is too young to be vaccinated (under 6 months old), make sure everyone in your household who is eligible has gotten vaccinated. Your family can also take daily precautions such as frequent hand washing, avoiding crowds and wearing face masks.

The CDC is actively tracking variants of COVID‑19. For the most up-to-date information about COVID‑19 variants, visit the CDC website.

Learn more

Children's Health is committed to being a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID‑19 hub.

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communicable disease, coronavirus, infectious disease, vaccine, virus

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