To start out, ALL viruses constantly change through mutation. Mutations in viruses — including the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic — are neither new nor unexpected. When a virus has one or more new mutations it’s called a variant of the original virus. A variant usually doesn’t affect how the virus works. But sometimes they make it act in different ways.
To understand how these variants happen we need to look at the way in which viruses infect you. When viruses infect you, they attach to your cells, get inside them, and make copies of their RNA or DNA, which helps them spread. If there’s a copying mistake, the RNA or DNA gets changed. Scientists call those changes mutations. These changes happen randomly and by accident. It’s a normal part of what happens to viruses as they multiply and spread. Because the changes are random, they may make little to no difference in a person’s health. Other times, they may cause disease. If a virus has a random change that makes it easier to infect people and it spreads, that variant will become more common. The bottom line is that all viruses, including coronaviruses, can change over time. And the more infections that occur the more opportunities the virus has to mutate.
Coronavirus variants are classified in different categories by organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- A variant of interest is a coronavirus variant that, compared to earlier forms of the virus, has genetic characteristics that predict greater transmissibility, evasion of immunity or diagnostic testing, or more severe disease.
- A variant of concern may be more infectious, or more likely to cause breakthrough or re-infections in those who are vaccinated or previously infected. Some variants are more likely to cause severe disease, evade diagnostic tests, or resist antiviral treatment. Alpha, beta, gamma, and delta variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus are classified as variants of concern.
- A variant of high consequence is a variant for which current vaccines do not offer protection. As of now, there are no SARS-CoV-2 variants of high consequence.
The odds are, COVID-19 will keep changing, that is what viruses do. Although it is impossible to predict how those variants will affect what happens, there are ways to continue to protect yourself against COVID-19 and variants that may arise. Getting vaccinated remains the most effective way to prevent COVID-19 as well as prevent more variants. The more vaccinated people there are, the less virus there is to spread, the less virus spreading, the less it will mutate. In addition to getting vaccinated, continuing to wear a mask in crowded places, maintaining good handwashing and hygiene measures, and social distancing when possible are all ways to prevent COVID-19.
As the virus continues to evolve, so does science. Researchers at RCR expect more investigational vaccine boosters in an attempt to further protect individuals from specific variants. If you or someone you know is interested in continuing to advance our protection from COVID-19 and would like to potentially participate in a future booster study designed to protect against specific variants, submit your information here and you will be added to our interest list. As soon as we begin a booster study, one of our recruiters will contact you to see if you qualify!