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Viruses naturally change over time through the process of mutation. When this happens, new variants can develop. SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is no exception to this.

As the pandemic has progressed, new coronavirus variants have been detected around the world.

Some that you may have heard of in the news are:

  • B.1.1.7 (the variant first seen in the United Kingdom)
  • B.1.351 (the variant first seen in South Africa)
  • P.1 (the variant first seen in Brazil)

In addition to these, there are also other variants that are currently circulating. Since they’ve emerged so recently, there’s a lot scientists still don’t know about coronavirus variants, such as:

  • exactly how widespread they are around the world
  • if the illness they cause is different than that of earlier versions of the coronavirus
  • what impact their mutations may have on existing tests, treatments, and vaccines

In this article, we’ll explore what we know so far about coronavirus variants as well as their potential impact on current vaccines.

It’s completely normal for viruses to mutate. This happens naturally when viruses infect and begin to multiply within a host cell.

All viruses contain genetic material in the form of RNA or DNA. Mutations within this genetic material occur at different rates, depending on the type of virus.

Mutation rates are typically higher in RNA viruses than they are in DNA viruses.

Two RNA viruses with high mutation rates that you may have heard of are human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and influenza (flu).

SARS-CoV-2 is also an RNA virus, but it generally mutates more slowly than other RNA viruses.

How do mutations happen?

When a virus infects a host cell, its genetic material must be copied so that it can be put into new viruses. These new viruses are eventually released from the host cell and can go on to infect new cells.

Viruses use an enzyme called a polymerase to copy their genetic material.

However, polymerases aren’t perfect, and they can make mistakes. These mistakes can result in a mutation. Many times, a mutation either does nothing or is harmful to a virus. But in some cases, it may help the virus.

When mutations are harmful, they can affect a virus’ ability to infect or multiply within a host cell. Because they don’t function well, new viruses that contain a harmful mutation often don’t survive.

However, sometimes a mutation gives a newly produced virus an advantage. Perhaps it allows the virus to bind more tightly to a host cell or helps it escape the immune system.

When this happens, these mutant, or variant, viruses can become more common within a population. This is what we’re currently seeing with the new variant strains of SARS-CoV-2.

Now let’s dig deeper into some of the more widespread coronavirus variants that you may have heard of in the news.

We’ll explore where these variants originated and what makes them different from earlier versions of the new coronavirus.

It’s important to note that new variants are being identified all of the time. Two examples of this include the variants recently identified in California and New York.

It’s also very likely that there are more variants that we don’t know about yet. Scientists are currently working hard to detect and characterize new coronavirus variants.

B.1.1.7 was first identified in the United Kingdom in the fall of 2020. It then proceeded to be transmitted very rapidly, becoming the dominant strain in the U.K.

This variant has been detected in at least 80 other countries around the world, including the United States. Public health officials are concerned that the B1.1.7. variant may soon become the main type of coronavirus in the United States.

How is it different?

The B.1.1.7 variant has several mutations that affect the spike protein. This protein is found on the surface of the virus. It’s what the virus uses to bind to and enter a host cell in your body.

This variant transfers more quickly between individuals. Public health officials in the U.K. note that B.1.1.7 is about 50 percent more infectious than the original coronavirus.

Why exactly this is isn’t known, but it’s possible that the mutations in the spike protein help B.1.1.7 to bind more tightly to a host cell. Data from laboratory (test tube) experiments that’s currently in preprint supports this idea.

Additionally, some research has found that B.1.1.7 samples are associated with a higher amount of virus (viral load). Increased amounts of virus in people who have contracted this variant could also make it easier to transmit to other individuals.

Faster transmission can have a big effect because when a virus transfers more quickly, more people can become sick. This can lead to more hospitalizations and deaths, placing a heavy burden on healthcare systems.

A report from scientists in the U.K. also suggests that people who contract B.1.1.7 potentially have an increased risk for death. However, additional research is needed to investigate this finding.

B.1.351 was initially identified in South Africa in early October 2020. It’s since been detected in at least 41 other countries, including the United States.

How is it different?

B.1.351 contains some of the spike protein mutations present in B.1.1.7, the variant first seen in the U.K. However, it also contains some others.

There’s currently no evidence that B.1.351 causes more severe illness than earlier versions of the coronavirus. One of the main concerns about this variant is the effect that its mutations appear to have on immunity.

There’s some evidence suggesting that the mutations in B.1.351 affect antibodies.

A 2021 study, currently in preprint, found that this variant could escape antibodies isolated from individuals who had previously had COVID-19.

Antibodies are important immune proteins that can bind to and neutralize foreign invaders like viruses. They’re produced in response to a natural infection or to a vaccination.

Because B.1.351 may evade antibodies, people who contracted the new coronavirus earlier could contract this new variant, despite their existing immunity.

It’s also possible that current vaccines may be less effective for this variant.

B.1.351 may also be transmitted faster.

A study in Zambia found that 22 out of 23 samples collected during a 1-week period were B.1.351, which had not been detected in 245 previously collected samples.

This finding coincided with a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases in Zambia.

P.1 was first detected in early January 2021 in travelers from Brazil who were tested upon entering Japan.

It was first found in the United States in late January 2021. Generally speaking, less is known about this variant than the other two.

How is it different?

P.1 contains 17 unique mutations. These include some of the key spike protein mutations present in both the variants first identified in the U.K. and South Africa, as well as several other mutations.

As with the other two variants, P.1 may be more transmissible.

P.1 was highly prevalent in samples that were collected during a January 2021 surge of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Manaus, Brazil. The variant had been absent in previous samples.

Because P.1 shares some mutations with B.1.351, it’s possible that this variant may have effects on immunity and vaccine effectiveness. There’s already some evidence for this.

Let’s go back to the COVID-19 surge of confirmed cases in Manaus.

A survey of blood donors in the city found that about 76 percent of people had contracted the new coronavirus by October 2020. This implies that some individuals in the January surge could have had a repeat infection with P.1.

You may be wondering if the coronavirus variants have an impact on the effectiveness of our current vaccines.

From what we know so far, it appears that the current vaccines may be less effective for B.1.351, the variant first identified in South Africa. This is currently an area of ongoing, intense research.

Let’s look at a snapshot of what some of the data says so far.

Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

Large-scale clinical trials of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine found a vaccine effectiveness of 95 percent against the original version of the new coronavirus.

This vaccine is currently authorized for emergency use in the United States.

A recent study investigated the effectiveness of this vaccine for test viruses containing the mutations found in B.1.351. To do this, serum from individuals who had been vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was used.

Researchers found that this serum, which contains antibodies, was less effective against B.1.351. In fact, neutralization of test viruses containing all of the mutations present in B.1.351 was reduced by two-thirds.

What about B.1.1.7, the variant first seen in the U.K.?

A study similar to the one we’ve discussed above found that neutralization of test viruses with the spike protein of B.1.1.7 was only slightly lower than it was for earlier versions of the coronavirus.

Moderna vaccine

The large-scale clinical trials on the Moderna vaccine determined that vaccine effectiveness was 94.1 percent against the original version of the new coronavirus.

Like the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the Moderna vaccine has been authorized for emergency use in the United States.

A recent study looked into the effectiveness of the Moderna vaccine for the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants. In order to do this, researchers used serum from individuals who had received the Moderna vaccine and test viruses containing the spike proteins from the variants.

It was found that test viruses with the B.1.1.7 spike protein were neutralized in a similar manner to earlier versions of the coronavirus.

However, neutralization of test viruses with the spike protein of B.1.351 was 6.4-fold lower.

Johnson & Johnson vaccine

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the third COVID-19 vaccine to be authorized for emergency use in the United States.

Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, it only requires one dose.

This vaccine has yet to be tested against specific variants. However, large-scale clinical trials were performed in places where variants are circulating, such as South Africa and South America.

According to the data released from clinical trials, the effectiveness of this vaccine 28 days after vaccination is:

  • 66 percent effective overall
  • 72 percent in the United States
  • 66 percent effective in South America, where the P.1 variant is circulating
  • 57 percent effective in South Africa, where the B.1.351 variant is circulating
  • 85 percent effective at preventing severe COVID-19 symptoms across all geographical regions

Other COVID-19 vaccines

What about some of the other COVID-19 vaccines around the world? How effective are they against the new coronavirus variants?

A recent publication from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) summarizes what we know so far about different COVID-19 vaccines and the more widespread variants.

Here’s what’s known so far about their effectiveness:

  • Oxford/AstraZeneca. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has an 82.4 percent effectiveness overall. It’s been found to be 74.6 effective against B.1.1.7. However, it may only be 10 percent effective against B.1.351.
  • Novavax. The Novavax vaccine is 95.6 percent effective overall. It’s 85.6 percent effective against B.1.1.7 and 60 percent effective against B.1.351.
  • Sinopharm. This vaccine, produced in China, has an effectiveness of 79.34 percent. However, early reports indicate that it’s less effective against B.1.351.

As long as the new coronavirus continues to circulate, we’ll continue to see new variants emerge.

However, there’s one vital tool we can use to help slow the transmission of the coronavirus as well as the emergence of variants. That tool is vaccination.

The FDA has authorized three COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use in the United States. All three of these vaccines have been found to be safe and effective in large-scale clinical trials.

Even if the current vaccines are less effective against some variants, they still provide some level of protection from becoming sick with COVID-19. Additionally, when more people have some immunity, the transmission of the virus can be slowed.

That’s why it’s so important to get vaccinated when it’s your turn. If you have questions or concerns regarding COVID-19 vaccination, be sure to discuss them with your doctor.

Protecting yourself from coronavirus variants

In addition to vaccination, it’s important to continue to carefully practice preventive measures in order to protect yourself from the coronavirus and its variants. These measures include:

  • Mask wearing. Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth when you’re out in public or near others outside of your household. Make sure your mask has at least two to three layers of fabric.
  • Try double masking. Speaking of layers, consider double masking. Research from the CDC has shown double masking is very effective at preventing exposure to respiratory droplets that may contain virus.
  • Wash your hands. Wash your hands with soap and water. Use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol if this isn’t available. Clean hands are particularly important after being in public and before touching your nose, mouth, or eyes.
  • Practice physical distancing. Try to stay at least 6 feet away from people outside of your household. Additionally, aim to avoid areas that are crowded or have poor ventilation.
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All viruses mutate, including the new coronavirus. Several new variants of the coronavirus have recently been identified.

These variants differ from earlier versions of the coronavirus in that they’re transferred faster between individuals.

Some, such as the B.1.351 variant, first seen in South Africa, may also affect immunity and vaccine effectiveness.

Research into the currently identified coronavirus variants is a rapidly evolving area of study. Additionally, new variants will be detected as the coronavirus continues to circulate.

Right now, one of the best things that you can do to protect yourself from the coronavirus and its variants is to get vaccinated.

Be sure to talk with your doctor about when you’ll be eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine.