The New Variants of COVID-19, Explained

January 22, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this Story

David S. Perlin, Ph.D. contributes to topics such as infectious diseases.

Updated 01/29/2021

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that people within the United States are now becoming infected with two new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These new variants, which originally emerged in the United Kingdom and South Africa, are just a few of a handful of virus variants that have emerged worldwide in recent months.

Researchers are still learning about the new variants. Initial research suggests they appear to spread more quickly and easily, but they don’t seem to cause more serious illness or death. And the same measures which lower your risk of contracting COVID-19 also appear to lower your risk of contracting COVID-19 from these new variants.

“At the moment, there are very few cases of these new variants that we know about compared to the overall number of COVID-19 cases we’re seeing, although we expect that to change over time,” says David S. Perlin, Ph.D, chief scientific officer of Hackensack Meridian Health’s Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI). “It’s important to be vigilant about mask-wearing and other recommended practices which lower your risk of contracting COVID-19, because they should help protect you from COVID-19 variants, as well.”

Here’s what we know about the new variants so far:

What are COVID-19 variants?

Viruses mutate over time, so the new variants which have emerged are normal and were expected by medical experts and researchers.

Sometimes, people use the term “strain” to refer to a mutated virus, but that term doesn’t apply here. The virus which causes COVID-19 – SARS-CoV-2 – is a mutated strain of coronavirus, which is a family of viruses. When SARS-CoV-2 mutates, the resulting mutations are known as “variants,” which are still considered a part of the SARS-CoV-2 strain. All types of SARS-CoV-2 can cause COVID-19 infection.

Different COVID-19 variants have been identified worldwide

This past fall and winter, three variants emerged worldwide, prompting travel restrictions to certain countries:

  • UK variant. In September, a variant was identified in the UK as B 1.1.7. By some estimates, half of all people who were diagnosed with COVID-19 in the UK between October and December had the variant. The UK variant has spread to other countries, including Canada and the U.S. Some experts have estimated that this variant is between 40 and 70 percent more transmissible than the variants currently circulating.
  • South Africa variant. In October, a variant was identified in South Africa as B 1.351. Researchers have found that some of the mutations in this variant are similar to mutations in the UK variant. Since mid-November, a significant percentage of people in South Africa who were diagnosed with COVID-19 have had the variant. This variant has spread to other countries, including the United States.
  • Nigeria variant. In late December, a variant was identified in Nigeria. At this time, it’s unknown how far this variant has spread. Researchers are still working to get more information about this variant.
  • Brazilian variant. In early January, researchers identified a new P.1 coronavirus variant in the Amazon city of Manaus, Brazil, amid a surge of new COVID-19 cases in the area. The P.1 variant has at least two key mutations that may make the strain more transmissible and better able to reinfect COVID survivors, as well as potentially render vaccines less effective.

The CDI is actively sequencing viruses from new patients with COVID-19, as well as asymptomatic team members who are virus positive following administration of vaccine. Since the start of the pandemic, the CDI has sequenced and tracked more than 800 virus variants throughout Hackensack Meridian Health.

Will variants affect vaccine efficacy?

Experts believe that while there may be some changes in antibody levels, the two currently authorized mRNA COVID-19 vaccines should still be effective, offering protection against the virus.

“The antibodies that you’ll create within your body after being vaccinated should still be highly effective against these new variants, because the mutations within the variants do not significantly interfere with the effectiveness of all neutralizing antibodies induced by the vaccine,” says Dr. Perlin. “We are awaiting new research to confirm this, but there’s no evidence that the vaccines would be ineffective against the variants.”

What should people do to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants?

The same precautions that lower your risk of COVID-19 can help protect you against COVID-19 variants. To protect yourself and your loved ones:

  • stay six feet apart from people from other households
  • always wear a mask over your nose and mouth when you’re around people from other households, both indoors and outdoors
  • limit the time that you spend in indoor spaces, especially in spaces with poor ventilation
  • stay away from crowds, indoors and outdoors
  • limit the size of indoor gatherings
  • wash your hands often, or use hand sanitizer

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.