Feb 5, 2021, 1:58:41 PM CST Jul 16, 2021, 7:32:43 PM CDT

What to know about COVID-19 variants

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

Family talking with doctor Family talking with doctor

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 may emerge," 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 change the arc of the pandemic? We don't quite know the answer to that question just yet."

However, there are still ways to keep your family healthy. Learn how and what we do know about COVID‑19 variants so far.

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 likely will be more.

Current known COVID‑19 variants include:

  • UK variant, or B.1.1.7, which has been detected in many U.S. states, including Texas (see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) map for updated COVID‑19 variant tracking). The CDC predicts that this highly transmissible variant could increase cases and become the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S.
  • South Africa variant, or B.1.351, which was first detected in the U.S. in South Carolina in late January 2021.
  • Brazil variant, or P.1, which was first discovered in Japan in visitors from Brazil. The first U.S. case of this variant was reported in late January in a Minnesota resident who recently traveled to Brazil.

Researchers have also identified a new California variant, or CAL.20C, which may be behind a surge of COVID‑19 cases in Southern California. This variant is still being studied.

Are COVID‑19 variants more dangerous?

Research on COVID‑19 variants is ongoing, but current data suggests that the variant strains may not be more deadly than the original COVID‑19 virus. "There are some models which suggest an increase in virulence of the UK variant, though those models have yet to be verified," says Dr. Kahn.

However, many variants, including the UK variant, appear to be more easily transmissible than the original COVID‑19 virus. Because these variants are more contagious, they spread more quickly. This has the potential to increase the number of COVID‑19 cases and the number of people with serious illness from COVID‑19.

Will COVID‑19 vaccines be effective against variants?

We do not yet have a clear understanding of how effective current COVID‑19 vaccines will be against the new COVID‑19 variants. There is some data that suggests COVID‑19 vaccines may provide protection against variants, but it is not fully known what level of protection that may be.

"As more people become vaccinated, we'll begin to see if vaccinated individuals are getting sick, and if so, if they get less sick because of the vaccine," says Dr. Kahn. "For a comparison, there are variants of the measles virus, but we have one measles vaccine that works. The hope is that it's going to be the same story for the COVID‑19 vaccines, but we don't know yet."

Researchers and vaccine producers will continue to look into this question in the case that an additional booster dose of a vaccine is needed to help protect against variants that emerge.

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

The arrival of COVID‑19 variants serves as a reminder that the pandemic is not yet over, and that it's more important than ever to practice COVID‑19 safety precautions.

The same precautions that can protect you from the original COVID‑19 virus – such as wearing a mask, social distancing and hand washing – can also protect you against COVID‑19 variants. Taking these steps can help reduce your family's likelihood of COVID‑19 illness.

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.

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.

Learn more

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.

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