What are the new coronavirus variants? Here’s what you need to know

It’s no secret that viruses mutate, and with a virus as deadly and as widely spread as COVID-19, new variants come with new risks and more we-don’t-know-yets. While scientists continue to investigate the new SARS-CoV-2 variants circulating globally, it’s important to understand how current efforts to protect against COVID-19 could be affected.

So, the big question is: Could the new variants affect COVID-19 testing and the COVID-19 vaccine?

We break down what we know so far and what is still unknown about the new variants below.*

What is a virus variant?

Think of it like this: the coronavirus family, like any other family of viruses, is subject to natural selection. It’s continually mutating to survive in new conditions, infect new host bodies, and fight against immunity. These genetic mutations occur over time and can lead to new variants with different characteristics. This includes SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Because these new variants are defined by mutations and deletions in their genetic code that alter their protein composition, thousands of COVID-19 variants have been identified since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020.

Some variants are more common and are estimated to be more transmissible than others, which is why it’s so important to continue to protect yourself and those around you from potential exposure.

Here’s what we are learning about the COVID-19 variants:

While there are many different strains of SARS-CoV-2, some variants are of particular concern because scientists are still learning if they spread easier, cause more severe disease, or may escape the body’s immune response.

The CDC says we are still trying to learn whether the new variants:

  • Spread more easily from person-to-person
  • Cause milder or more severe disease in people
  • Are detected by currently available viral tests
  • Respond to medicines currently being used to treat people for COVID-19
  • Change the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines

Here are the current coronavirus variants of concern:

B.1.1.7 lineage (alpha)

  • First identified in Southeast England
  • A more highly transmissible variant
  • May be associated with an increased risk of death compared with other variants
  • As of July 8, 2021, the alpha variant has been reported in 150 countries and territories worldwide, including the United States

B.1.351 lineage (beta)

P.1 lineage (gamma)

B.1.617.2 lineage (delta)

Here’s what we do not know about the new variants:

Scientists are working to learn more about the new coronavirus variants, and according to the CDC, more studies are needed to understand the following:

  • How widely these new variants have spread
  • How the disease caused by these new variants differs from the disease caused by other variants that are currently circulating
  • How these variants may affect existing therapies, vaccines, and tests

Will the COVID-19 vaccine still work?

Studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination with currently authorized vaccines recognize these new variants. This is being closely investigated, and more studies are underway.

In the meantime, Dr. Anthony Fauci says “if you are vaccinated, you're going to be protected, which is another very good reason to encourage people strongly to get vaccinated. If you are not vaccinated, you are at risk of getting infected with the virus that now spreads more rapidly and gives more serious disease.”

How will COVID-19 testing change with these new variants?

It’s important to continue testing. Testing plays a crucial role in containing and mitigating COVID-19 by identifying infected individuals to prevent further person-to-person transmission.

However, with all diagnostic tests, there is a possibility of false-negative and false-positive results, which may increase when testing genetic variants of SARS-CoV-2. For these reasons, health care providers continue to consider all available clinical, diagnostic and epidemiological information.

How can I protect myself against the new variants?

The CDC recommends continuing to protect yourself and others against the new variants by practicing the same protective measures as before:

  • Follow social distancing guidelines and stay at least 6 feet from others outside of your household
  • Wear a mask to protect yourself and others
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid crowds and minimize travel. The more people you are in contact with, the more likely you are to be exposed to COVID-19
  • Get tested for COVID-19 if you experience symptoms, suspect you have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, or just want to test proactively to have peace of mind

The reality is that there is still a lot about the new coronavirus variants that we do not know. Still, we are just as committed to delivering accurate and reliable COVID-19 test results.

We will continue to work with the FDA and our laboratory partners to monitor post-market reports and identify potential changes in the performance of our tests to ensure the assays used to test your sample meets the highest quality standards.

Check back with us for important COVID-19 variant updates.

Experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and looking for relief? Get COVID-19 treatment online via Everlywell's Virtual Care offering.

*Note: This blog was last updated on 7/19/2021. The provided information may change as new developments are announced by the CDC and FDA.

References 1. Allen H, Vusirikala A, Flannagan J, et al. Increased household transmission of COVID-19 cases associated with SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern B.1.617.2: a national case-control study. Public Health England. Retrieved from: khub.net 2. Davies NG, Abbott S, Barnard RC, et al. Estimated transmissibility and impact of SARS-CoV-2 lineage B.1.1.7 in England. Science. April 2019; 372(6538):eabg3055. doi: 10.1126/science.abg3055 3. New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group. NERVTAG meeting on SARS-CoV-2 variant under investigation VUI-202012/01. December 18, 2020. Retrieved from: khub.net 4. Pearson CAB, Russell TW, Davies NG, et al. Estimates of severity and transmissibility of novel South Africa SARS-CoV-2 variant 501Y.V2. Retrieved from: cmmid.github.io

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