In the last 18 months, the COVID-19 virus has changed our lives beyond recognition. The virus causes flu-like, respiratory symptoms and led to the first global pandemic in over a century.
If you have been watching the news, it’s likely that you’ve also heard the term “COVID variants”. Variants appeared in headlines in the UK before Christmas with the Alpha variant (also known as the Kent variant) and the Delta variant (previously known as the Indian variant) in Spring 2021.
As more and more of these variants appear, we look into the questions they raise: Are they more dangerous? How do they occur? Are the vaccines still effective?
What is COVID-19?
COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered type of coronavirus. The virus that causes the disease is known scientifically as SARS-CoV-2.
The majority of those infected with the virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory symptoms (high fever, continuous cough and loss of taste and smell) and will recover without special treatment. Older people, and those with underlying medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, respiratory conditions, conditions affecting the immune system and cancer, may develop a more serious form of the illness which can result in hospitalisation and death.
What is a COVID-19 variant?
Put most simply, a COVID-19 variant is a significant alteration in the genetic code of the virus that affects the virus’ characteristics.
The original version of the virus is known as the “wild type”. Variants can differ from the wild type in a number of ways, such as speed of transmission, how sick they make people, vaccine resistance, and how well your immune system will remember them and protect you in the future.
How do COVID-19 variants occur?
In order to spread, virus’ must replicate themselves – and quickly. Like any cell that reproduces itself, it produces a copy of any genetic material. This process is not perfect and sometimes results in mutations – a change in the original genetic code.
A good analogy is for gene replication is copying a document by hand rather than photocopying – it’ll be good, but not perfect. A word might get added here and there!
The majority of mutations are called “passengers” – they have no real impact on anything about the virus, they’re just carried along. These mutations have no real effect on the virus’ relationship with humans, but they do present an interesting way to track where a virus has been as variations can often be tracked geographically.
Mutations can also be detrimental to the virus. If a mutation makes the virus less transmissible, it will likely die out in the population quickly.
But occasionally, a mutation will occur which is beneficial to the virus. This could help it to survive and reproduce in a number of ways, such as making it resistant to vaccines or easier to transmit between people.
Because these mutations give the virus an advantage, they quickly become more prevalent in the population. This is natural selection in action. Another example is the standard flu which circulates every winter. It changes quickly, so a new flu vaccine is needed each year.
Are COVID variants more dangerous?
The COVID variants that have presented so far could be considered more dangerous.
The biggest change for most of the variants is that they are more infectious than the wild type and are more easily passed between people. This means that the number of infections could increase and put more strain on hospitals and their staff.
Additionally, high numbers of the disease in the general population could lead to more mutations with potentially worse side effects.
Some studies have shown that the new variants have the potential to make people more unwell than the original wild type virus, but increased infectiousness seems to be the biggest potential threat.
Do the vaccines still work against variants?
Fortunately, the vaccines seem to be effective against the variants that are currently in circulation. Though some initial evidence suggests that it is not as effective against the delta variant, it still provides a good level of protection against serious disease, hospitalisation and death.
The existing vaccines stimulate a broad immune response involving a range of antibodies and cells. For this reason, it’s unlikely that any variation will render the vaccine completely ineffective.
The way the vaccine is constructed also makes it easy to adapt and edit the composition in the future to cover any further mutations. It is thought that this is how we will face the future of COVID, with a yearly vaccine for the most vulnerable, like we already do with the flu vaccine.
The WHO and other scientific bodies are constantly collecting data on these new variants and their effects on the vaccines.
What are the main COVID variants I should be aware of?
When COVID variants first became worldwide news, they were referred to by the geographical location in which they were first discovered. It became evident that this was a poor method of identification for a number of reasons, so the World Health Organisation began a system of Greek alphabetical names instead.
At the time of writing (July 2021), there are four significant COVID “variants of concern” in the UK:
- The Alpha variant (formerly known as the Kent variant, scientifically known as the B.1.1.7 variant) was first identified in England in September 2020.
- The Beta variant (formerly known as the South African variant, scientifically known as the B.1.351 variant). It was first identified in England in October 2020.
- The Gamma variant (formerly known as the Brazilian variant, scientifically known as the P.2 variant). The first case in the UK was identified in February 2021.
- The Delta variant (formerly known as the Indian variant, scientifically known as the P.1 variant). The first case in the UK was identified in April 2021.
Will there be more COVID variations?
The short answer? Yes.
As long as coronavirus exists within the population, there will be variations and mutations. The good news is that most mutations are short-lived and make no real difference to us.
Whilst new variants are detected every week, a variant only becomes notable when it becomes evident that there are significant changes caused by the virus’ mutations and not by human behaviour.
How do we avoid future dangerous variants?
Avoiding future dangerous variants will be a global effort. Variants are more likely to develop where case numbers are higher. So, keeping the number of coronavirus cases to a minimum is the biggest aid to avoid future dangerous variants of COVID.
But this isn’t just a UK problem. As the pandemic has handily demonstrated, the world is no longer a series of disconnected countries. Easy and cheap global travel and migration has made a pandemic a truly global problem in ways that it wasn’t in previous generations.
If the UK were to completely eliminate COVID-19, but the rest of the world was still raging with it, it would only be a matter of time before variants developed in other countries and made their way back here. That’s why a global vaccination effort is so important.
How does it affect me?
Like all types of COVID, prevention is key!
These are some ways to reduce your chance of catching coronavirus and passing it on:
- Wash your hands regularly
- Follow government advice regarding social distancing and mask-wearing
- Get a vaccination
- Observe local restrictions
- Test yourself regularly, especially before and after socialising in crowds or larger groups
- Stay at home where possible if you have symptoms
What is surge testing?
If a new variant is identified in your area, you might be invited to take part in something called “surge testing”, even if you don’t have any symptoms.
Surge testing is a fast, mass testing service in an area where there are suspected cases of new or dangerous COVID variants. This helps scientists to understand the pattern of spread of the virus and learn more about its characteristics.
If this applies to your area, you will be told about it through the post or telephone and directed to order a home test or make your way to a testing site.
COVID variants are a natural result of high levels of virus within a population. Thousands of mutations occur with no effect on human health, though some mutations can cause increased transmissibility or severity of disease.
Measures like social distancing, frequent hand washing and mask-wearing should be employed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, regardless of the type of variant. The vaccine also greatly reduces the risk of becoming severely ill with all types of COVID variants.