How Variants Work
Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants persist. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic.
Viruses constantly change and become more diverse. Scientists monitor these changes, including changes to the spikes on the surface of the virus. By carefully studying viruses, scientists can learn how changes to the virus might affect how it spreads and how sick people will get from it.
If you think about a virus like a tree growing and branching out; each branch on the tree is slightly different than the others. By comparing the branches, scientists can label them according to the differences. These small differences, or variants, have been studied and identified since the beginning of the pandemic.
Some variations allow the virus to spread more easily or make it resistant to treatments or vaccines. Those variants must be monitored more carefully.
Notable Variants in the United States
B.1.1.7 (Alpha): This variant was first detected in the United States in December 2020. It was initially detected in the United Kingdom.
B.1.351 (Beta): This variant was first detected in the United States at the end of January 2021. It was initially detected in South Africa in December 2020.
P.1 (Gamma): This variant was first detected in the United States in January 2021. P.1 was initially identified in travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at an airport in Japan, in early January.
B.1.617.2 (Delta): This variant was first detected in the United States in March 2021. It was initially identified in India in December 2020.
These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on healthcare resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.
So far, studies suggest that the currently authorized vaccines work on the circulating variants. Scientists will continue to study these and other variants.
How common are these variants?
The CDC tracks the variants and their prevalence in the United States. Follow this link to see the latest, in-depth data on variants: https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#variant-proportions
Delta, the most contagious, and therefore most concerning strain, is now the dominant variant in the southeast region, which includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
What can you do now to protect yourself?
COVID-19 continues to spread in the United States and variants are circulating. Take steps to protect yourself from the virus.
Get a COVID-19 vaccine today.
Wear a mask (especially when indoors) that covers your nose and mouth to help protect yourself and others.
Stay 6 feet apart from others who don’t live with you.
Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
Wash your hands often with soap and water. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available.