Reports about new strains of the virus that causes COVID‑19 may have you worried or asking questions. What do these variants mean for the pandemic? Are they more dangerous? How can I keep my family healthy?
Unfortunately, the answers to many of these questions are still being uncovered.
"It's predictable that variants will emerge and continue to emerge. The discovery of the Omicron variant is yet the latest example of the evolution of the virus," says Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern. "The big question is, how will variants, such as Omicron, change the arc of the pandemic? It's difficult to say. What we're seeing so far is that Omicron is spreading much more rapidly than previous variants. I encourage families to know that now is not the time to let our guard down."
Learn what we know about COVID‑19 variants so far and ways to help keep your family healthy.
What are variants of a virus?
Viruses commonly change or mutate as they spread. These changes can result in variants, which are versions of the virus that are not identical to their predecessor. Variants may have a different type of behavior or biological characteristic than the original virus.
"Variants essentially mean that the genome of the virus changed a little bit," explains Dr. Kahn. "This is very common with these types of viruses."
Some variants may occur and never be detected before they disappear. Other variants may emerge and spread widely. We're currently seeing multiple variants of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID‑19 – around the globe, and there will likely be more.
"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 current COVID‑19 variants?
Previous COVID‑19 variants have included Alpha (B.1.1.7), Beta (B.1.351) and Gamma (P.1) variants, which started spreading in December 2020 to January 2021. Currently spreading COVID‑19 variants include:
- Delta variant, or B.1.617.2, was first discovered in India in October 2020. It was first found in the United States in March 2021 and quickly became widespread.
- Omicron variant, or B.1.1.529, was first discovered in South Africa in November 2021. The first case in the U.S. was reported on December 1, 2021, and it is now widespread. As of mid-December, the Omicron variant became the most dominant strain in the U.S.
The Omicron variant is spreading more rapidly than previous variants, and has quickly surpassed the Delta variant in number of new cases in the U.S. This may be because the Omicron variant has more mutations in the spike protein than prior variants.
"What is striking about the Omicron variant is that it seems to be spreading much more rapidly than the Delta variant did, and there were less people immunized back when the Delta variant emerged," says Dr. Kahn. "This is concerning and means that an increasing number of people will be exposed to and infected with this virus."
Are COVID‑19 variants more dangerous?
Research on COVID‑19 variants is ongoing. Researchers are currently working to determine whether certain variants could cause more severe illness. Though the data is still being analyzed, there are some studies that suggest that some of the variants may be more virulent. It is not yet known if the Omicron variant is more virulent.
Overall, when a variant is more contagious, it will spread more quickly. This can increase the number of COVID‑19 cases and the number of people with serious illnesses from COVID‑19.
Are COVID‑19 vaccines effective against variants?
Current COVID‑19 vaccines are effective so far against most variants of the virus, though the Delta variant may show a little resistance to vaccines. Whether the vaccines can protect against the Omicron variant is an active area of research. Some early data suggests that people who have gotten booster doses may have more protection against Omicron than others.
It's important to know that COVID‑19 vaccines are still considered highly effective against severe illness. 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?
COVID‑19 variants serve as a reminder that the pandemic is not yet over. The best way to prevent COVID‑19 and its variants is for everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated. In addition, everyone who is eligible should get a booster shot.
"The way the Omicron variant is spreading right now, there's a great likelihood you will get exposed if you're out in public," says Dr. Kahn. "Don't wait to get vaccinated, and don't wait to get your booster if you're eligible."
If your child is too young to be vaccinated, 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 recommends that unvaccinated individuals over the age of 2 wear masks indoors in public. Given the surge in cases due to the Delta and Omicron variants, vaccinated people should also wear masks in areas with substantial or high spread of COVID‑19.
As we continue to hear news about COVID‑19 variants, Dr. Kahn urges families to look to trusted sources of information for guidance. "We are going to continue to see more variants, and I encourage families to look at the data and rely on public health officials," says Dr. Kahn.
The CDC is actively tracking variants of COVID‑19. For the most up-to-date information about COVID‑19 variants, visit the CDC website.
COVID-19 variants may have you worried. What does this mean for the pandemic and are vaccines effective against variants? An infectious disease expert @Childrens answers common variant questions.
Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID‑19 hub.