As COVID-19 continues to dominate our everyday lives, the release of the new vaccines has given us hope. Unfortunately, we are also hearing reports of new strains of the virus emerging. These variants are causing added stress because there are many unknowns. We spoke with Dr. Vineet Menachery about these new strains and whether we should be worried.

Q: In general, why do viruses develop into different strains?  

A: New variants or strains are usually driven by creating an advantage for the virus to continue to thrive. In some cases, the variant may adapt so that mutations are able to replicate faster. Others can be more easily transmitted. Still other variant mutations make the virus more resistant to the immune system recognition. These factors, coupled with the large number of infections, allow new variants to emerge.

Vineet D. Menachery Vineet D. Menachery, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Texas Medical Branch

Q: How many different COVID-19 strains are there?  

A: There are likely 100s to 1,000s of SARS-CoV-2 variants. While variants have emerged and receded over time, some variants of concern have not, such as the UK, South African, and Brazilian strains, all of which have been selected for additional research and close monitoring by public health officials

Each variant has mutations that distinguish them from the original SARS-CoV-2 strain. Some of these changes may give them an advantage, but we do not yet know what that advantage is. Symptoms-wise, we do not know much about the new variants other than they may be more transmissible. This is based on the number of people reporting that they are being infected with each.

Q: Which strains should we be most worried about? Are the new strains more deadly? Are they more contagious?

A: It is hard to say which strains we should be most worried about at the moment. The emergence of these variants is concerning because there is evidence that they may be easier to spread from person to person. There is some evidence that immune protection, provided by from natural infection or vaccination, will be impacted by the changes found in these variants. Among the mutations that are concerning, the changes found in the South Africa and Brazil variants have shown the greatest potential impact on initial studies.  

Currently, none of the new strains have been shown to be more deadly. The data so far suggests that the UK variant is more contagious, but more studies are needed to conclusively prove that. Still, public health officials are concerned because a more transmissible strain means more cases and a percentage of those additional cases will result in severe disease that requires hospitalization and may result in death.

Q: Is the current vaccine effective against the new COVID-19 strains?

A: Yes. Blood samples from patients in both the Pfizer and Moderna trials have shown protection against the new variants. However, in some cases, the protection is diminished compared to the original COVID-19 strain. Patients should be comforted to know that recent studies have found the remaining level of protection appears sufficient. More studies are underway to further explore this question.

Q: Can wearing double masks protect against the variant?

A: There are ways to improve how your face mask protects you, and additional layers of cloth fabric or double masking can add further safety. It is important to ensure that your mask fits snug over your nose, mouth and chin. However, the previous measures to prevent spread, including wearing a single mask, social distancing and maintaining good hygiene practices should continue.

Q: Is there anything else that you think people need to understand about these new variants?

A: New variants will continue to emerge as long as the virus replicates and spreads. Viruses develop mutations over time and until the spread is controlled, we can expect variants to continue to emerge. Both limiting spread and vaccine uptake will reduce infection and the number of variants we face in the future.

Visit our COVID-19 pages to stay up to date on the latest information.

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