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What to know about COVID-19 variants


The COVID-19 variants that have been emerging have mutations in the virus genome that change the characteristics of the virus and cause it to act differently. These changes can be significant to public health and it is important to note that these genetic mutations are expected, some variants will spread and become predominant, while others will subside. All RNA viruses mutate over time, some more than others and it is neither new nor unexpected. Some variants will cause more severe disease, some will spread more easily, some will require different treatments and some may change the effectiveness of current vaccines. New variants are likely to continue to happen as long as the virus continues to spread through the population.


These COVID-19 variants have been creating concern and all variants have been identified in the U.S. and seem to spread more easily and quickly, causing more infections. A variant identified in the UK, B.1.1.7, has many mutations and several of them are in the spikelike S protein that the virus uses to attach itself to cells. There is some preliminary evidence that this variant is more contagious. Another variant identified in South Africa, B.1.351, has multiple mutations in the S protein and could have the ability to re-infect people who have recovered from earlier versions. It also may be somewhat resistant to some of the vaccines still in development. However, other vaccines currently being tested appear to offer protection from severe disease in people infected with this variant. It has not been shown to cause more severe illness than earlier versions. A variant identified in Brazil, P.1, also has some mutations in the S protein, but some evidence suggests that this variant causes more severe disease and could reinfect those who have already had the original strain of the virus.


New York and California also have reported new virus variants that may be more contagious than the original strain. The New York variant, B.1.526 may weaken the effectiveness of vaccines and cause challenges for monoclonal antibody therapies. The California variant, B.1.427/B.1429 is likely more transmissible due to the mutation that enables the virus to bind to human receptor cells more easily and may be associated with an increased risk of severe disease and death.


Experts in areas where the strains are appearing have found more cases in children overall, however the children are being infected with the original strain as well as the new ones. There is no convincing evidence that the new strains have any special tendency to infect children.


Early research suggests that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines can provide protection against both the U.K. and South Africa variants and both are testing their mRNA vaccines against current variants. Some immune responses from current vaccines could be less effective against some of the new strains, but the immune response involves many components and this does not mean the vaccines will not offer some protection. Moderna has already shipped their new vaccine targeting the B.1.351 (South Africa) variant to the US National Institutes of Health and Pfizer-BioNTech is in talks about testing a new vaccine modified to target this variant. Yet, vaccine manufacturers are also looking to create booster shots to improve protection against these variants.


More investigation is needed and more genetic sequencing must be completed on novel variants. Even those who have been vaccinated should continue to watch for changes in guidance and continue practicing safety measures such as social distancing, hand washing and wearing a mask. The more people who are infected, the more chances there are for more mutations to occur so maintaining COVID-19 safeguards is key.


To learn about our mutation detection/allelic discrimination kits click here.


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