In recent months, new variants of COVID-19 have appeared around the world. South Africa, the U.K., and Brazil have all identified different mutations of the original strain of COVID-19, and the U.K. variant has reached the U.S. and Michigan. And just this past week, new variants were identified in New York City and California. While this may seem like a setback in the race to end the COVID-19 pandemic—especially after vaccines to protect against the original strain of the virus are here—that’s not necessarily true.
“After a virus is around for a while, it will change and mutate,” says Dennis Cunningham, M.D., an infectious disease expert with Henry Ford Health. “It’s natural that new variants will pop up to adapt to their environment. While COVID-19 seemed to be a more stable virus, and hadn’t mutated as much as other viruses (like the flu, for example), it is now mutating.”
One theory as to how certain virus mutations can become more resistant and spread more easily was recently studied. It is thought that they could spring from people who contract COVID-19 with weakened immune systems. Since these people are immunocompromised, it takes the immune system longer to clear the virus from the body. All the while, this may give the virus time to slowly morph and learn how to better attach itself to its host and withstand immune system detection.
“When the virus replicates itself in our body, mutations (or changes in its genetic material) might appear,” says Dr. Cunningham. “Some of these mutations might make the virus more infectious (i.e, easier to transmit). Or these mutations might make the virus resistant to antibodies (the proteins our body makes to fight infections).”
Here's some of what we currently know (and don’t know) about the new COVID-19 variants.
Q: Do the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines protect against the new variants?
A: They appear to be effective against the strains from the U.K. and South Africa but the level of protection may not be as high as it is for the original strain of the virus. According to one study, vaccines may not protect against the Brazil strain. These findings are preliminary.
Pfizer and Moderna, along with other vaccine manufacturers, are conducting ongoing research, which includes testing if an additional shot will “boost” effectiveness against these variants. The booster dose might be changed slightly to give better protection against variants. Scientists are continuing to monitor the evolution of the U.K., South Africa and Brazil variants, along with the newer variants from New York City and California. More data on how effective the vaccines in preventing them is expected in the coming weeks.
Q: Are the variants more contagious and more dangerous than the initial strain of COVID-19?
A: They do seem to be more contagious and severe—especially the variants found in California and the U.K.— which is why it is important to continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash hands frequently and avoid gatherings.
Q: Will more variants appear?
A: The longer COVID-19 is around, the more likely it is that variants will appear. Some variants appear and quickly die out, while other mutations become stronger, learn to replicate themselves better, and become more resistant to antibody protection.
Q: Do new variants mean that COVID-19 will never go away?
A: It’s likely that COVID-19 will be here to stay, but that doesn’t mean it will always be a pandemic. The most likely scenario is that the pandemic will end—meaning it won’t be a constant, daily threat in our lives. Instead, it will become an endemic, or a disease that needs to be managed but that doesn’t affect people in high levels. (Chicken pox, for example, is an endemic in the U.S.)
Q: Will there be new vaccines to protect against the variants?
A: Scientific research is being conducted to observe and track these variants, and Pfizer and Moderna are working on potential booster shots, if necessary, to increase protection against more contagious and potentially more severe COVID-19 variants. Luckily, Pfizer and Moderna are both mRNA vaccines, which are more flexible and can be modified and more easily than other types of vaccines. This means if COVID-19 vaccines need to be changed or tweaked to protect against certain variants, it’s possible that new mRNA vaccines will be able to be created more quickly.
For answers to common questions about COVID-19 vaccines, visit henryford.com/coronavirus/vaccine-faqs.
Dennis Cunningham, M.D., M.H.A., is the medical director of infection control and prevention for Henry Ford Health.