Feb 5, 2021, 1:58:41 PM CST Dec 2, 2021, 11:56:52 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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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? 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 will likely be more.

COVID‑19 variants that have been designated as "variants of concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO) include:

  • Alpha variant, or B.1.1.7, was first detected in the U.K. and made its way to the U.S. in December 2020.
  • Beta variant, or B.1.351, which was detected in the U.S. in South Carolina in late January 2021. It was first detected in South Africa in December 2020.
  • Gamma variant, or P.1, 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.
  • 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. The Delta variant is currently the most dominant strain in the U.S. and is the only variant of concern noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Omicron variant, or B.1.1.529, was first discovered in South Africa in November 2021 and has now spread to dozens of countries. The first case in the U.S. was reported on December 1, 2021.

Are COVID‑19 variants more dangerous?

Research on COVID‑19 variants is ongoing. Researchers are currently working to determine whether they 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.

Overall, some variants appear to be more easily transmissible than the original COVID‑19 virus. Because these variants are more contagious, they 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 emerging Omicron variant is an active area of research. The 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 ages 18 and older can now get a booster shot.

"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."

In addition to getting vaccinated, your family can 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 variant, 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.

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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