As we had reached what we had thought was the endgame of the pandemic, things seemed to be going good. Unfortunately, a problem arose: new versions of the COVID virus, known as “variants”, started popping up everywhere, bringing us all the way back to square one and forcing us to go back to the old days of masks and social distancing, with the threat of more lockdowns becoming more evident.
But what does this all mean? What should we know about these new variants? Here’s all the questions that you might be asking, and the answers to them:
1. What are “variants”?
“Variants” are what happen when a virus mutates to adapt to its environment and to improve the life and become these new versions of the virus. As the pandemic has been going on, the virus has mutated a tremendous amount, changing both the way it spreads among people and its ability to infect them. The CDC usually categorize new variants among three different categories, listed from least to most concerning:
- Variant of Interest (VOI): Have features that may reduce your immune system’s ability to prevent infection.
- Variant of Concern (VOC): Are less responsive to treatments or vaccines and are more likely to evade diagnostic detection.
- Variant of High Consequence (VOHC): Are significantly less responsive to existing diagnostic, prevention, or treatment options.
2. Are variants always more harmful?
Variants have a tendency to become more or less harmful after mutating, and it really all depends on how it mutates. Mutations can affect different aspects of a virus, including how contagious it can be, or how severe it is after infection. For example, the “alpha variant” of COVID has been reported to be more transmissible than the original strain, and the “delta variant” is said to be twice as contagious as all previous strains, and could cause even more damage to unvaccinated people than the original strain can.
3. Which variants are more common in the U.S.?
As of right now, the “delta variant” has become the most predominant strain in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean that the other variants still aren’t present. In fact, the CDC estimates that the “alpha variant” represents about a little over 3% of cases that were identified in a total of eight states, including Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee.
4. How are vaccines holding up against the variants?
Right now, researchers are trying to figure out how if the vaccines that are currently available for use will be effective towards the new strain, and if they have to make new ones in the future. So far, everything seems to be fine, but no vaccine is perfect, and there is always the chance that those that are vaccinated can still be infected by the new strains.
5. How can I stay safe?
The best thing to do is to practice pandemic protocol: wash your hands often, wear masks in public areas (yes, even if you’re vaccinated, unfortunately), and maintain social distancing, as well as stay inside if at all possible.