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What to know about coronavirus variants

Coronaviruses on a blue-green background.

Jan. 14, 2021—It's the nature of viruses to mutate or change over time. So it comes as no surprise to health experts that the coronavirus has spawned multiple variants.

So far only two of the variants have raised concerns. One, dubbed B.1.1.7, was first seen in the U.K. It has since been found in the U.S. and other countries as well.

Another, called B.1.351, was first seen in South Africa.

These two variants seem to spread more easily and quickly from person to person than the original coronavirus. That's why researchers are watching them more closely than other variants.

But, so far, neither variant appears to cause more severe illness than the original virus. And there's no reason to think the current vaccines for COVID-19 would be less effective against them. That's good news.

Why track variants?

Most viruses mutate over time. Probably the most well-known of these is the flu virus. Its regular mutation is one reason we need new flu shots every season. The new shots guard against some of the latest mutations.

But the COVID-19 vaccines produce a response that targets several parts of the coronavirus's spike protein, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus would need to go through complex mutations in the spike protein to overcome vaccine-based or natural immunity. Right now scientists think that's unlikely.

Still, CDC and other agencies are keeping a close eye on variants as they emerge. They're looking for variants that may:

  • Spread more quickly in people.
  • Cause either milder or more severe disease in people.
  • Be able to evade our current viral tests.
  • Respond differently to medicines being used to treat COVID-19.
  • Not respond to current vaccines.

What you can do

You can help slow the spread of variant coronaviruses with some familiar steps from your pandemic toolkit:

  • Wear a face mask in public.
  • Avoid people who are sick.
  • Keep 6 feet away from people not of your household.
  • Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily.
  • Be alert for symptoms.

Learn more about protecting yourself and others from COVID-19 by visiting our Coronavirus health topic center.

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