What You Need to Know About Coronavirus Variants, Including Omicron.

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Editor’s Note: New details about these variants are emerging as researchers continue to learn more. While we aim to update this article as soon as new information becomes available, please check the CDC website for the latest details about variants in the United States.

The World Health Organization (WHO) first detected the novel coronavirus on December 31, 2019. Mild concern quickly grew into an international crisis as the coronavirus spread across the globe. World leaders, federal agencies, and healthcare organizations implemented numerous strategies to stem the tide of COVID-19. Many lives were lost due to COVID-19, but many have also been saved thanks to vaccinations, public safety initiatives, and the continued efforts of civilians worldwide. Over 260 million COVID-19 cases have been confirmed internationally as of December 13, 2021. Over 5.2 million casualties have been reported while 8.47 billion vaccine doses have been administered internationally.

Combating COVID-19 has proved to be extremely challenging for healthcare providers. The emergence of new COVID-19 variants has only made the struggle to end the pandemic all the more taxing. The Delta, Lambda, Mu, and Omicron strains of the coronavirus each have unique properties that pose serious concerns. The Omicron variant, for instance, poses a greater risk to individuals who’ve previously contracted COVID-19. As such, the CDC deemed Omicron a “variant of concern” on November 30, 2021.

There’s a lot to unpack regarding COVID-19 variants; “where do variants come from?” and “which variant is the most dangerous?” are questions that aren’t easily answered. Today, we’ll share what we’ve learned about the COVID-19 variants as well as several resources to protect yourself and your loved ones.

What Are the Current Variants Affecting the United States?

Variants of COVID-19 have been circulating the globe since the beginning of the pandemic. However, new variants have emerged at faster rates since fall 2020. These are some of the most prominent variants in the United States, along with the basics scientists know about them so far.

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B.1.1.7., or Alpha – Also called VOC 202012/01, this strain first emerged in Southeast England as early as September of 2020. For a time, it became the dominant strain in England and spread to dozens of countries across the world, including the United States. This variant’s spike protein carries eight different mutations in addition to several other genetic changes that make it more efficient at attaching to cells.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), evidence indicates that this variant transmits more efficiently and rapidly than several other strains of COVID-19; it’s about 56% more transmissible. However, reports from the WHO also indicate that B.1.1.7. doesn’t result in more severe symptoms or a higher incidence of death than other variants. Using modeling software, public health experts initially predicted that, by March of 2021, this variant would become the dominant strain in the United States. In April, this prediction briefly came true; B.1.1.7. was “the most common lineage circulating in the United States.”

B.1.351, or Beta – This strain, which is also known as the South African variant, was initially detected in that country in October of 2020 and first appeared in the United States in late January of 2021. B.1.351 shares several of the same mutations as B.1.1.7., despite emerging independently of B.1.1.7. It quickly began to spread around the world and appears to be more infectious, again due to spike protein mutations that give this variant an advantage in attaching to and infecting human cells. Israeli researchers discovered that the Beta variant slightly reduces the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine from 95% to 94%.

P.1, or Gamma Also known as the Brazilian variant, this strain was first detected in mid-January in four travelers from the Amazon rainforest who visited Japan. By the end of that month, the variant was present in the United States and may have been responsible for an earlier surge in Brazil-based infections. In addition to spike protein mutations that may make this variant more contagious, P.1 contains a mutation called E484K, which may help the virus evade antibodies. This means immunity, whether developed from experiencing a previous COVID-19 infection or receiving one of the vaccines, may not provide sufficient protection against severe reinfection in people exposed to the P.1 variant. The CDC reported that 2 fully vaccinated gold miners in French Guana were infected by the Gamma strain in May 2021.

B.1.617.2, or Delta – This is still the most prominent variant, as it is present in all 50 states and is the most common strain in India. Delta contains more than a dozen mutations — one of which helps the virus evade both infection and vaccine-induced antibodies. However, the three most widely used vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson largely retain most of their effectiveness at protecting people from Delta-related COVID-19. This strain has the ability to replicate faster in people’s bodies, making Delta “the most transmissible variant yet,” according to The New York Times, and may result in higher rates of hospitalization than other strains. Delta can create several different symptoms — such as headaches, a runny nose, and a sore throat — from other variants. Lastly, Delta spreads about 55% faster than Alpha.

B.1.1.529, or Omicron – This variant currently affects 30 states in America. Moreover, it is also capable of infecting fully-vaccinated individuals and can spread more rapidly than other variants. Researchers first detected Omicron in South Africa during November 2021. Britain reported its first Omicron cases on November 27, followed by the United States in early December. Experts discovered that booster shots are incredibly effective at reducing Omicron’s virulence. As such, health officials encourage everyone to receive a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine as soon as they are able to.

Other Variants 

C.37, or Lambda – Lambda was first detected in Peru sometime in December 2020. Since then, it’s spread across South America and has even been detected in California. As with most other variants, Lambda possesses an altered protein spike that increases its infectivity rates. Reports suggest that Lambda can potentially bypass the protection afforded by the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. However, Pfizer and Moderna still seem capable of effectively resisting Lamba. Though Lambda is much more transmissible than the “wild type” of coronavirus, the Delta strain currently outpaces it to a drastic degree. Furthermore, there are comparatively fewer Lambda cases in the U.S. than most other variants.

B.1.621, or Mu – Mu was initially detected in Colombia in January 2021. This variant has since been detected in the United States, though it only accounts for less than 1% of overall COVID-19 cases. Incidentally, WHO doesn’t believe that the Mu variant is an “immediate threat” to American citizens. However, this variant does possess a wide range notable of mutations; Mu may not be as virulent as the Delta strain, but its mutations help it elude antibodies with staggering efficiency. Moreover, Mu has a higher transmission rate than the Alpha and Gamma variants.

Is the Emergence of Variants Cause for Concern?

Scientists have long expected that variants would emerge during the pandemic — it’s well-established that RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) mutate frequently. But it’s the potentially harmful consequences variants can introduce — and the fact that researchers won’t necessarily know what those consequences are until they’ve started affecting many people — that could be concerning. The CDC has outlined some of those possible consequences and what they involve. 

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Coronavirus variants may possess certain characteristics, such as:

  • Ability to spread faster among people
  • Ability to cause milder or more severe symptoms and disease
  • Ability to go undetected by diagnostic tests
  • Ability to evade immunity induced by vaccines or natural infection
  • Decreased response to available treatments

Despite these potential effects, “not all [variants] are a cause for concern,” notes Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security. “We should worry when a variant is accompanied by epidemiologic evidence such as that observed in the U.K.,” Dr. Rasmussen said in reference to the region’s surge in cases following the emergence of the B.1.1.7. variant. Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci further explained this, saying, “If you have a virus that’s more transmissible, you’re going to get more cases… When you get more cases, you’re going to get more hospitalizations, and when you get more hospitalizations, you ultimately are going to get more deaths.”

Ultimately, unless a variant’s health effects are more damaging or pronounced, it isn’t necessarily something to worry about. But the frequency with which variants are now emerging — and the fact that they appear to be more transmissible — may be.

Why Are These Variants Emerging?

COVID-19 continues to spread in the United States even as more people become vaccinated, and this unrestrained transmission is a primary contributing factor for the emergence of new variants. According to Dr. Ben Bimber, a research professor at Oregon Health and Science University, each time the virus has an opportunity to replicate — the process it undergoes when it enters a new host and begins infecting cells — it also has an opportunity to mutate.

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Mutations often don’t affect the virus in any meaningful way. But they can also transform the virus into a variant that exhibits “increased disease severity,” explains Dr. Rasmussen. The more a virus spreads, the more chances it has to mutate into a variant that’s potentially more harmful than or that has a survival advantage over previous strains.

This increased likelihood of mutations corresponding with the surge of cases across the U.S. highlights the importance of working to slow person-to-person COVID-19 transmission. “The only way to stop the emergence of new variants is to stop the spread of the virus,” Dr. Bimber told NBC News. “If there are more people infected, there’s simply more virus out there and it has more opportunities to mutate.”

But it can take several months to identify variants and determine if they’re causing surges. This time frame, coupled with the unknown and potentially harmful ways mutations could alter the virus, is worrisome. Fortunately, according to Dr. Dan Jones of Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, there’s a clear pathway to preventing variants from spreading and keeping new variants from surfacing: getting vaccinated.

What Do the Variants Mean for Current Vaccines?

That a variant could emerge that would resist vaccine-induced immunity is a potential consequence researchers and health organizations are concerned by. And because many of the current variants have only begun a more drastic spread between late-2020 and early-2021, researchers are still investigating the strains’ impact on current vaccines.

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Several smaller studies have indicated “some variants may pose unexpected challenges to the immune system, even in those who have been vaccinated.” Although research is ongoing, preliminary studies are revealing the Pfizer vaccine may have reduced efficacy against the Delta variant. In addition, researchers are finding that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which the WHO approved for emergency use in mid-February, may not be as effective at protecting against variants. This news comes after a study showed preliminary results that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine only offers “minimal protection” against the variant of the coronavirus that first appeared in South Africa.

Dr. Fauci has also acknowledged that the variants “could potentially weaken the effectiveness of current vaccines.” Additionally, “the vaccines may not prevent people from becoming mildly or asymptomatically infected with the variants,” Dr. Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at New York’s Rockefeller University, told The New York Times. U.S. health organizations will need to perform more genetic sequencing to determine what the changes in the variants mean for vaccine efficacy.

Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca are continuing to release data about the efficacy of their respective vaccines on the variants as this new information comes to light. Generally, their vaccines appear as though they may not be as effective against the South African and Delta variants, but clinical studies are ongoing, and much more research is needed to determine the vaccines’ response to the Brazilian and other variants.

But there may be a silver lining: There’s a “‘cushion effect,’ meaning current vaccines will still offer some protection and will still be far better than no vaccine at all,” according to USA Today. Dr. Nussenzweig echoed this point: “Existing vaccines will still prevent serious illness, and people should continue getting them.” Until we’re all able to get vaccines, however, it’s important that we take the right steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 variants so we can limit opportunities for mutations to occur — and keep ourselves healthy.

How Can You Protect Yourself — and Others?

Researchers are continuing to discover new information about the multiple coronavirus variants present in the United States. They’re still working to learn whether — and how — the diseases that these variants cause could differ from COVID-19 and how those diseases might respond differently to current treatment protocols and vaccines.

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Although the variants seem to be more transmissible, one thing health experts are confident about is that these mutated forms still spread in the same way that all coronaviruses transfer from person to person. When someone who has the virus coughs, sneezes, talks, breathes, or sings, they release respiratory droplets containing the virus into the air. These small droplets can land in the mouths, eyes, or noses of people nearby, who then contract the virus.

So what does this mean in terms of protecting yourself against the new variants? “All the things we have learned about this virus still apply,” Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told The New York Times. “It’s not like this variant is somehow magically spreading through other means. Anything risky under the normal strain just becomes riskier with the variant.” Because the virus spreads in the same way, the steps we’ve been taking all along to protect ourselves from the novel coronavirus remain largely unchanged. The WHO continues to urge people to wear masks, even if they’re considered fully vaccinated, to reduce community spread — particularly of the rapidly surging Delta variant.

But because the variants appear more infective, notes Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times, we may need to become “more rigorous” in our adherence to protective measures. That’s particularly important if we’ve grown “lax about our COVID-19 safety precautions” after nearly a year of following guidelines and grappling with pandemic fatigue. Moreover, the CDC also recommends that immunocompromised persons receive a third dose of the vaccine to bolster their immune systems.

The CDC is constantly updating its guidelines to help us protect ourselves and our communities. Some of their recommendations include:

  • You can resume certain activities that you engaged in before the pandemic. 
  • You don’t need to get tested before or after traveling unless you exhibit COVID-19 symptoms. 
  • Wear a two- or three-layer mask made of washable fabric that covers your nose and mouth and that doesn’t gape at the sides. Always wear your mask in public settings or when you’re around people you don’t live with, even if you are fully vaccinated. 
  • Practice physical distancing. Stay 6 feet away from people who don’t live in your household at all times, particularly when you’re in public places.
  • Sanitize high-touch surfaces, such as computer keyboards and doorknobs, with a recommended disinfectant at least daily or more often.
  • Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds using soap and water. Or, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. It’s especially important to clean your hands after touching your mask, coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, or going in public.