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COVID Variants

For well over the past year, our lives have been disrupted. It’s been a scary time, and a time of adjustment. It’s also been a time of learning, with many new terms and health guidelines entering our lives. We’ve learned about the importance of social distancing, vaccination, masks, and so on. 

One factor that has made coronavirus especially hard to eradicate is the changing nature of viruses. Over time, they are able to mutate, resulting in new strains which may be more or less severe than the original strain. Understanding how variants emerge, and how they differ from the original strain of Covid-19, helps inform public safety recommendations.

What is a variant?

Like any virus, the SARS-CoV-2 virus—which causes COVID-19—is susceptible to variants. When a virus infects you, it attaches itself to your cells and makes copies of its own RNA (genetic material) in order to spread. Occasionally during the replication process, copying mistakes will be made—this is what is meant by “mutation.” Genetic mutations are a normal part of a virus’s process of multiplying and spreading. These mutations happen randomly (essentially, by accident), resulting in unpredictability. 

Often, changes will occur with no measurable impact on the virus’s properties (e.g., transmissibility, severity of symptoms, etc.). When one or more mutations are detected, a new variant is understood to exist at that point.

Variants complicate the picture by posing unique challenges. For example, questions arise around existing vaccines’ effectiveness, or whether general precautions should be revised to minimize the spread of a particular strain or variant.

The CDC has identified several unique variants which they are tracking and studying. Most recently, the highly-transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant was found (in India in October 2020), and, as of this writing, has become the dominant strain in the U.S. and other countries. 

Information is important, so in this post we’ll cover everything you need to know about covid variants. And how to protect yourself against the Delta variation the U.S. is currently fighting. 

Variants are the result of virus mutations. Through mutation, viruses are constantly changing, resulting in new variants. The process of virus mutation occurs at the genetic level, when a virus replicates its RNA in a host’s cells. This is a natural and expected part of the lifecycle of the pathogen—a survival mechanism, in other words. 

Sometimes, these new mutations will emerge and then disappear soon after. Other times, however, a new mutation will take hold and persist, becoming a variant. 

A relatively simple way to think of a variant is how infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., describes it: “a variant is a version of the virus that has accumulated enough mutations to represent a separate branch on the family tree.”

How are variants tracked and studied?

In order to eradicate the virus, these new strains must be understood, tracked, and responded to.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) perform crucial functions in tracking different strains that emerge—especially vital in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Covid19 mutates, these organizations monitor specific variants to identify potential changes to the virus’s infectiousness (spread), severity of illness, and the effectiveness of various treatment options (including vaccines). 

Numerous variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 are being tracked in the United States and globally during this pandemic. While scientists work to monitor all variants that emerge, certain variants are categorized as either Variants of Interest, Variants of Concern, or Variants of High Consequence. 

The simplest way to compare these variant classifications is to note the following:

  • A Variant of Interest may lead to outbreaks but is not yet widespread in the country
  • A Variant of Concern shows evidence of increased transmission and more severe disease
  • A Variant of High Consequence is one which makes previously-recommended vaccines and treatments much less likely to work well

More specifically, Variants of Interest (VOI) are characterized by 

  • Genetic changes that may impact virus properties like their transmissibility, severity of symptoms, efficacy of existing vaccine and/or treatment options
  • Possibly significant epidemiological impacts on or risk to global public health (for example, an elevated community transmission risk, or multiple countries with increasing relevant prevalence in relation to the increasing number of cases over time).

A Variant of Concern, or VOC, meets the criteria for a Variant of Interest, and presents a potentially elevated threat due to one of the following indicators:

  • Evidence of impact on diagnostic methods, treatment, or vaccine efficacy
  • Evidence of increased transmissibility and/or disease severity

A Variant of High Consequence, or VOHC, is one that presents clear and compelling evidence that previous recommendations regarding prevention measures or treatments may have significantly-reduced effectiveness in comparison with the original strain. 

While the Delta variant has drawn focused attention over the past month—due a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in several countries (including the U.S.). As of this writing, though, no Variants of High Consequence have yet been identified for SARS-CoV-2.

How many variants of Covid are there?

Due to the ever-mutating genetic makeup of coronavirus (like any virus), there are technically thousands of versions of Covid around the globe. Not all become Variants of Interest, however—and then, only a select few of those escalate to Variants of Concern. Only the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and now Delta variants so far fall under the VOC distinction.

How a Variant of Interest becomes a Variant of Concern

The more prolifically a virus spreads throughout a population, the more opportunities it has to mutate. Most of these mutations are inconsequential, but some do result in changes to the virus that help it survive and reproduce. This is how a mutation rises to the level of being categorized as a variant.

Once a variant has been identified as a Variant of Concern, critical data continues to be collected and monitored, and a variant’s status is subject to either escalation or de-escalation. 

Let’s say a particular variant is identified as a Variant of Interest—the Lambda variant (which the WHO has labelled a Variant of Interest right now, while the CDC has not). Experts will study how the mutation spreads and its response to existing prevention and treatment measures. The variant status will either escalate, becoming a Variant of Concern, or it will either remain a Variant of Interest or disappear altogether. 

Covid Variants of Concern

The CDC is currently monitoring four unique Variants of Concern: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. 

Among the data the CDC gathers, these variants specifically differ in the following areas:

  • Where the variant was first identified
  • How a variant spreads (e.g., faster, slower) compared to other variants
  • The potential for severe illness and/or death
  • Whether the vaccine is more or less effective against the variant
  • Whether current treatments are more or less effective in combating the variant

For more information about how these Variants of Concern compare with each other, CDC details on the above points can be found here.

Delta: a COVID-19 Variant of Concern

The Delta variant was first detected in the United States in March of 2021 and only took a few weeks to overtake the Alpha strain as the variant posing the most significant risk. Largely a result of community spread, the Delta variant of coronavirus now stands as the most dominant strain in the U.S., with the CDC estimating that over 90% of new COVID-19 cases in the United States are caused by the Delta variant.

How is the Delta variant different?

The Delta variant is nearly twice as contagious as previous coronavirus strains and impacts unvaccinated populations with more severe illness than what characterized previous strains. This is according to the CDC, which has been studying the Delta variant since it first appeared in India in December 2020.

Delta’s increased contagion rate is a result of both how it proliferates (by shedding more virus into the air) and how it attaches to human cells (with the Delta strain more capable of attaching to human cells in the respiratory tract). This means the Delta variant both puts more virus into the air and is more easily transmitted person-to-person through the air.

Delta variant symptoms

Generally, COVID19 variant symptoms are in line with those of the original strain. These include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea. 

Because of the rapid transmission and infection rates, scientists are essentially working in real-time to learn everything they can about the Delta variant. What makes drawing specific conclusions tricky is that it is difficult to know whether the variant is, in fact, making people sicker—or if it’s just affecting more vulnerable populations like the unvaccinated in higher numbers. 

If you are reading this and wondering if you might have symptoms indicative of COVID-19, visit the CDC’s symptom self-checker tool

What is the Lambda variant?

Another variant, the Lambda variant, first appeared in Peru, as early as August 2020. In some South American countries, it has become the dominant strain. 

The Lambda variant is currently categorized as a Variant of Interest (not a Variant of Concern, like Delta) by the WHO. The Lambda variant is not currently categorized as one by the CDC, however.

Recommendations to keep safe  

Vaccines prevent Covid-19 infection

A common question, “Does the COVID vaccine protect against new variants?” has a simple answer. Yes, vaccines remain one of the most effective methods for preventing coronavirus infection and spread. The available vaccines do protect against Delta and other variants—helping to not only prevent people from infection but also reducing the chance of severe illness (or even death). 

Data shows that people who are vaccinated are less likely than the unvaccinated to spread COVID-19 to others. 

If you are unvaccinated, the CDC recommends receiving one of the authorized vaccines as soon as possible. Unvaccinated individuals should also wear a mask in indoor public places. The CDC provides more in-depth guidance—including masking and social distancing instruction—for unvaccinated individuals here.

Masks offer protection against Covid-19

The CDC has advised the wearing of masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 and its known variants. It has been strongly recommended that those who are not fully vaccinated should always wear masks indoors, and those who are fully vaccinated should still consider masking up indoors if they are in areas of substantial or high transmission. If you aren’t sure if you are in one of these areas, the CDC has provided an interactive map.

Masks are especially important for those with weakened immune systems, those who are at risk for severe disease due to age or an underlying medical condition, or those who share a household with someone who meets these criteria. 

Covid-19 Testing

Because many individuals infected with COVID-19 present no symptoms, there is no substitute for COVID-19 testing when it comes to knowing whether or not you have COVID-19. A COVID-19 test will detect variants of coronavirus (though a positive test will not specify which variant may be responsible). 

Receiving a negative test result is the only way to know with certainty whether or not you have been infected (and are contagious). The danger of not testing is that, while you may not be suffering any symptoms, if you are in fact positive for COVID-19, you can spread it to others—who may experience symptoms of various severity. 

Covid Reinfection Rates

Those who have previously tested positive for COVID-19 may be wondering how the emergence of variants impacts them. When someone is infected with COVID-19, their immune system typically develops antibodies, which can help resist the virus if there is repeat exposure. Much like the vaccines offer comparable effectiveness against the original strain as well as its variants, the body’s Covid19 antibodies provide similar protection against emerging strains.

What to expect looking forward

When you hear about new variants on the news, it can sound frightening, like the virus is getting worse or we are losing the fight. The truth, though, is that viruses are known to mutate; the identification of new variants simply means the experts are doing their job, paying very close attention to how the virus is behaving and how we can keep ourselves as safe as possible.

While coronavirus variants do pose new challenges, the guidance for the general population is largely unchanged. If you’ve been doing the right things and have effectively protected yourself for this long, just remain vigilant and keep exercising those precautions to protect yourself and others.

General guidelines to prevent yourself from getting sick include:

  • Getting vaccinated, if you haven’t
  • Following current mask-wearing guidelines
  • Practicing social distancing and avoiding crowds (especially in venues with poor ventilation)
  • Washing your hands often with soap and warm water
  • Covering all coughs and sneezes (and then washing your hands)
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces on a daily basis
  • Monitoring your own health for coronavirus symptoms

Stopping the transmission of COVID-19 and its variants is the key to taking control of the pandemic. As has been the case from the start, we’re all in this together. The tools that have been promoted from the beginning—vaccination, masking, social distancing, and hand washing—remain the most effective measures we can take. 

From the start, BioCollections has been advancing diagnostic discovery 

The more our population knows about how coronavirus and its variants impact us, the better position we are in to put up the fight we need to put up. To this end, COVID-19 testing provides individuals with insight into their own health so they can make the right decisions to protect themselves and others and provides researchers with more complete data around the virus’s spread and severity.

BioCollections was one of the first the first laboratories in Florida  to start offering the  for SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR test , and continues to provide rapid and reliable testing solutions for individuals and employers. 

We’re here to help you find testing locations, schedule an appointment, or learn more about employee testing solutions.

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