How many COVID-19 variants are there? What you need to know

Viruses can and will mutate, and as expected, there is a handful of COVID-19 variants that have been found worldwide and have begun to be documented in the United States.

“All RNA viruses mutate over time, some more than others. For example, flu viruses change often, which is why doctors recommend that you get a new flu vaccine every year,” Dr. Robert Bolinger, an infectious disease professor at Johns Hopkins said.

“Geographic separation tends to result in genetically distinct variants,” Dr. Stuart Ray from Johns Hopkins said.

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Here is a breakdown of the current variants and where they have been found, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“UK Variant” (B.1.1.7)

United Kingdom experts found a variant of the virus that is called B.1.1.7, 201/501Y.V1, or VOC 202012/01, in fall of 2020. Researchers said it spreads easily and quickly and it could be associated with a higher risk of death compared to the other versions of the virus. More studies are needed, however, to confirm the findings. It has spread around the world and was found in the U.S. in December.

“South African” variant (B.1.351)

B. 1. 351, or 20H/501Y.V2, is called the South Africa, variant. It was first found in October and has some commonality with B.1.1.7. Cases of the South African variant started appearing in the U.S. at the end of January.

The CDC said the variant does not have any impact on the severity of the illness.

“Brazilian” variant (P.1)

The Brazilian variant called P.1 was first found in travelers who came from Brazil who arrived at an airport in Japan in early January. The CDC says it has an additional 17 mutations that could affect antibodies’ ability to recognize the virus. It was first found in the U.S. at the end of January.

The CDC says that despite the existence of these variants, they are hopeful that the current vaccines should work against them, but more studies are underway.

Scientists also remind us that with any version of the COVID-19 virus, the best ways to prevent transmissions are not only vaccination but also practicing social distancing, mask usage, washing hands and quarantine.


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