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Medical experts say newly discovered variants of the novel coronavirus could be as much as 50 percent more infectious than the original virus. SDI Productions/Getty Images
  • Three known variant strains of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, have been identified.
  • Experts believe the variants could be as much as 50 percent more infectious than the original virus.
  • There are ways to reduce your risk of contracting the variants.

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If it wasn’t widely known before the pandemic, the general public is quickly learning that viruses change through mutation, and new variants of a virus like the novel coronavirus are expected to occur over time.

At least three known variant strains of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, have been identified and studied.

“People need to be concerned about the new strains for many reasons: There is evidence that these new strains may be 50 percent more infectious than the original virus, which would be expected to lead to a massive spike in new cases, as the new strains increase in prevalence,” Dr. Scott Braunstein, medical director of Sollis Health in Los Angeles, told Healthline.

Braunstein said the increase in cases could overwhelm health systems and lead to untold “preventable” deaths due to a lack of resources, such as ICU beds, ventilators, and nursing staff.

Though much is still being studied about the variants — how easily they spread, if they cause more severe illness, and if current vaccines will protect against them — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the following is known about the variants.

  • B.1.1.7 variant has a large number of mutations. It emerged in the United Kingdom and has made its way across the world, including to the United States and Canada. Though it spreads more easily and quickly than other variants, it is unknown whether it causes more severe illness or an increased risk of death.
  • 1.351 emerged in South Africa. It is independent of the variant detected in the United Kingdom, but it does share some mutations. Cases have occurred outside of South Africa, but it has not been detected in the United States.
  • P.1 was identified in four travelers from Brazil tested during screening at Haneda Airport outside Tokyo. It has not been detected in the United States. This variant contains a set of additional mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies.

Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and host of “Super Awesome Science Show,” noted that an increase in transmissibility with certain variants is expected.

“This should not come as a surprise as viruses tend to mutate regularly, and those better suited to our bodies tend to grow in number and eventually become dominant,” he told Healthline.

Continuing to reduce the chances of exposure is the best defense against the variants.

“The new strains are thought to have spike proteins, which are ‘open’ longer than the original, allowing them to enter human cells more efficiently, thus making them more infectious,” Braunstein explained. “This means that transmission would require a smaller number of viral particles to spread the infection from one person to another.”

The new strains make it more imperative for people to be vigilant about slowing the spread, he added.

Here are a few ways to keep yourself and others safe.

Tetro says the best measure for safety is to follow the ABCs of prevention, an approach used to prevent measles before a vaccine was developed.

“The key for me is that until we have the vaccines in at least two-thirds of people’s arms, we need to follow the ABCs so that we can keep the spread as low as possible,” Tetro said.

The ABCs are:

Airway: Protect yourself with barrier protection.

Bubble: Gather with people who you trust virologically and emotionally.

Contacts: If someone in your bubble ends up contracting the virus, it’s easy to contact trace. Tetro suggests using a contact tracing app.

Each person you spend time with indoors who lives outside your household increases your risk and makes contact tracing more difficult.

“This would be a good time to reduce the number of families in your bubble, which, as positivity rates increase, may not be as safe as it once was,” Braunstein said.

Though total isolation is impractical, safe choices are possible, Tetro says.

“We are social creatures, so isolation is never a good thing. But if you can identify a safe bubble of a few very trusted people, then you should be able to get through this pandemic,” he said. “But having a super large circle could be hard to manage. Keep it to single digits.”

Rather than leisurely shopping for food, clothes, and other necessities, try to shorten the amount of time you spend indoors shopping.

“Every minute spent shopping indoors increases your risk,” Braunstein said. “When possible, utilize options such as curbside pickup or delivery service to further reduce your exposure.”

If you are not working remotely, Braunstein suggests moving work gatherings outdoors, if possible.

“Many infections are acquired through contact at work, so be sure to continue to socially distance at work, move meetings or other gatherings outside, when possible, or virtual,” he said.

For school setting, practicing CDC guidelines is the safest option, he said.

“School learning pods should also reduce the number of students, or be moved outdoors, weather permitting,” Braunstein said.

According to a survey of epidemiologists administered by the nonprofit journalism center CivicMeter, churches ranked as a high risk for virus transmission, in addition to bars, jails, nursing homes, and indoor restaurants.

“We have seen that crowded gatherings where there is singing and other types of vocal participation can lead to massive spread,” Tetro said. “Praying at home may not feel as good as being with your fellow congregants, but it will help you feel safe.”

Outdoor and virtual services can also connect you with your religious community and reduce putting anyone at risk.

The CDC reports that experimental and epidemiological data indicate that community masking can reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Though a cloth mask offers some protection, the mask’s ability to protect you from breathing in the virus might depend on its fabric type, the number of layers of fabric it consists of, and how well the mask fits, according to the CDC.

Take the opportunity to secure a more effective mask, such as a tight-fitting surgical mask or an N95. If you do not have access to a better mask, then wearing two masks may be more protective than wearing only one.

Wearing two masks isn’t necessary, though, if your mask has two layers, Tetro added.

“Studies have shown this can be sufficient to stop enough of the droplets from getting through. Mind you, any mask needs to be worn properly with seals above the nose and around the chin,” Tetro said.

The CDC continues to recommend practicing good hygiene by washing your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Also, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water aren’t available.

“Given the smaller infectious dose required to transmit the new strains, activities such as touching credit card pads or gas pump handles become riskier,” Braunstein said. “Keep a small bottle of sanitizer with you so that you can immediately sanitize after these activities.”

When it’s your turn, get vaccinated. Braunstein said the vaccines encode for multiple spike proteins, and changes to a single protein should not limit vaccine effectiveness.

“However, it is conceivable that one of the other variants, or a future variant, may require a new or changed vaccine,” he said. “This is just one reason why it is so critical that we slow the spread and vaccinate at-risk persons as quickly as possible.”