Coronavirus variants: What you need to know

The coronavirus has mutated into several variants that are more transmissible, but how will they affect you?

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
5 min read

Coronavirus variants could threaten pandemic progress.

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As the United States reaches the one-year anniversary of battling the COVID-19 pandemic, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel with more vaccines rolling out. But, another potential threat is still lurking -- the coronavirus variants. It's normal for viruses to mutate and change, but because the coronavirus has affected the world so dramatically, fears over how these variants will affect us abound.

How many are there? Where are they? Do the vaccines work against them? Are they more fatal? How could they affect when we are able to beat the pandemic?

In order to answer those questions and more, we talked to a physician and consulted the CDC and current information we have from scientists. It's important to note that the COVID-19 variants are a rapidly developing topic, so we will continue to update this FAQ as new information emerges. 

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What are the COVID-19 variants and where are they spreading?

"COVID-19 variants occur as the original COVID-19 strain mutates. This is a normal process among viruses and occurs usually as a mistake when the virus is replicating inside the body," says Dr. Nicholas L. Pantaleo, internist and family medicine physician at Westmed Medical Group in Westchester, NY. "Most mutations do not change or weaken the virus, but some can make the virus stronger or more infective," says Pantaleo. 

There are several different variants that have emerged around the world, but in general, there are three main variants that are circulating globally that the science and medical community are watching. These variants are:

B.1.1.7 or the UK strain: This strain was first found in England and has now spread across the world, including the United States. According to the CDC, the variant spreads more quickly and easily than other variants and it could potentially be more dangerous, although more research is needed to confirm that. "The B.1.1.7 variant has a 35% to 75% increase in transmissibility over the predominant strain currently circulating, " says Pantaleo. He added as of March 4 at least 170 cases of this variant were found in New York.

B.1.351 or the South African strain: This strain was first found in South Africa, and was found in the US in late January. Clinical trials have shown that the Astrazeneca vaccine is less protective against this strain, causing concern among scientists and health leaders. According to The New York Times, preliminary studies from both Pfizer and Moderna show that their vaccines are "less effective" against this strain, but still offer some protection. 

According to a report in the The New York Times, people who have previously been infected with another strain of the virus may not be protected against this strain, which is another cause of concern for those who have recovered from COVID-19. "[This variant] has a 150% increase in transmissibility, and existing vaccines may not provide as much protection against it," says Pantaleo. "There is increasing concern about infections with this strain, even if the individual had been infected with a different strain previously," he said. Panteleo added that as of March 4 there were at least 2 cases of this variant found in New York. 

P.1 or Brazil stain: This variant was first found in travelers from Brazil who were tested in a Japan airport. Its cause for concern comes from suspicions that it may evade antibodies (such as those from previous infections or potentially vaccines)."[The Brazil Variant] is the one we know the least about, but preliminary data suggests an increase in transmissibility," Pantaleo says.  The variant was recently found in Illinois, as well as Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Minnesota, Florida, Oklahoma, and Alaska, according to The New York Times.

Other strains: "There have even been mutations found within the United States, including a West Coast variant (B.1.427/B.1.429 or CAL2.0C)," says Pantaleo. Another variant in New York City (B.1.526) is rapidly spreading, accounting for about 27% of cases in New York City in mid-February, according to The New York Times. The New York variant may weaken the effectiveness of vaccines. "This variant has mutations in the spike protein that contribute to immune escape from monoclonal antibodies as well as neutralizing antibodies in COVID-19 convalescent plasma," says Pantaleo. 


Some of the variants make current vaccines less effective. 

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Do the vaccines work against the variants?

"All three current COVID-19 vaccines available appear to provide some protection against the new strains, especially for worst case scenarios that include hospitalization and death," says Pantaleo. "New versions and/or booster vaccines are currently being developed and then tested to better protect against these new mutated strains."

Before you think that you can avoid getting the vaccine because you've already had and recovered from COVID-19, think again. "There is belief that the current COVID-19 vaccines protect against the new variants more than a past infection does," says Pantaleo. 

Since so much information is still unknown at this time, it's important to continue following CDC safety guidelines, including wearing masks and physical distancing, even if you had COVID-19 or were vaccinated, until experts say it's ok to do otherwise. 

Bottom line, all of the various vaccines that are currently approved are deemed safe by the CDC, FDA and health authorities. While the exact efficacy rates vary for each vaccine, in general, the vaccines are showing to protect against more severe cases of COVID-19 and death resulting from an infection. As more variants of the virus are expected to emerge (and existing variants spread) it's more important than ever to quickly and effectively distribute vaccines.

Are the variants more contagious or more dangerous?

"Although more studies and evaluation about these variants are constantly occurring, all three appear to spread more easily than the original COVID-19. However, we are still unsure if they are more fatal," says Pantaleo. The CDC says that because the variants seem to be more contagious, it could lead to an uptick in cases, which could lead to more strain on the healthcare system and more deaths. 

Some experts worry that the variants could "hijack" the progress of the pandemic over the next few months, which is why it's important to keep following safety protocols, especially now. 

"Every person still needs to continue wearing masks, social distancing and maintain proper hygiene to remain vigilant against all these strains. Even if a person has completed a vaccine series, these protocols need to continue to help decrease overall infection rates in the United States," says Pantaleo. 


Wearing a mask, washing your hands, getting vaccinated when you can, and social distancing are important for protecting you from the COVID-19 various and variants.

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How do you protect yourself against variants?

The safety measures we've been instructed to follow for the entire pandemic will help protect you against the variants. This includes wearing masks while in public or around people outside of your household, maintaining physical distance from people who do not live with you, getting tested and quarantining when you feel sick or if you've been exposed and practicing proper hand hygiene. In addition, getting vaccinated when a vaccine is available to you is also important to protect yourself, others, and eventually help end the pandemic. 

Watch this: Stanford expert's bottom line on what a COVID vaccine means for you
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.