Frequently Asked Questions
Variants are viruses that have changed or mutated. All viruses change and mutate over time; variants are common in viruses with quick mutation rates such as coronaviruses or influenza.
Viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, make imperfect copies of themselves as they move from person to person or from an animal to a person. This leads to constant mutations and new variants. The term “variant” describes a version of the virus with a specific set of mutations.
Many mutations often don’t provide any advantage to the virus. But sometimes a mutation can make a virus more transmissible or change the severity of the disease the virus causes. When the same mutation emerges in multiple places it could indicate that these mutations provide some advantage for the virus—making it easier to spread or to evade antibodies, for example.
Variants become variants of concern (VOCs) when the mutations or changes have clinical or public health significance. It is concerning when mutations cause variants to:
• Increase transmissibility (spread)
• Increase virulence (severity of disease)
• Decrease vaccine effectiveness
• Alter diagnostic testing
Together, these affect the public health and healthcare response to the virus and our community’s ability to prevent the spread.
These variants are especially concerning because they have mutations which affect the spike protein on the virus. The spike protein is what allows the virus to attach to human cells but is also how our immune systems can recognize it. The COVID-19 vaccines work by teaching our immune systems to recognize this spike protein too.
There are many variants of the SARS-Cov-2 virus (the virus that causes COVID) circulating globally. The VOCs of greatest concern currently being tracked are:
• B.1.1.7 – first identified in the UK with a large number of mutation in the fall. Data suggests it spreads more easily and quickly than other variants.
• B.1.351 – first identified in South Africa and emerged independently of B.1.1.7 but shares some of the same mutations. Thought to spread easily and more easily evade the immune system.
• P.1 – first identified in travellers from Brazil. This variant contains a set of additional mutations which may make it harder for your immune system to fight.
Vaccines teach our immune system to respond to a virus by recognizing some key sign of it. Mutations that affect the parts of the virus that the immune system recognizes could undermine a vaccine’s effectiveness.
Data is still being collected about vaccine efficacy but preliminary results are encouraging. While the VOCs may change the spike protein, early data is showing that the vaccine is helpful at reducing the burden of disease regardless of which variant is circulating.
While preliminary data is encouraging, it will still be important to provide protection on an ongoing basis. Vaccine manufacturers are also looking at developing a booster to provide additional protection against variants.
Data is still being collected on VOCs to better understand just how different they are. Erring on the side of caution is always wise, but continuing to follow good public health safety measures will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 regardless of variant:
• Proper masking
• Physical distancing
• Washing your hands
• Staying home when you are sick
• Quarantining when returning from travel