There are at least four new variants of COVID-19. What does that mean?
Living things change through mutations in their DNA. Just what is a mutation? For a lot of us, the word brings up memories of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who changed from little turtles into sentient, talking, pizza-loving teenage bipedal superheroes through a mysterious canister of ooze.
That idea might make the COVID-19 mutations sound scary. In fact, viruses make copies of themselves to reproduce. There are lots of copies and some have small changes — mutations — that make changes in the virus as it spreads.
More contagious variants
Mutations can cause all kinds of changes, including changes that help the virus. The ones that are beneficial for the virus tend to survive and to spread more.
One kind of mutation we often see in viruses is a change to a faster spreading version of the virus that is often also less deadly.
This makes sense. If the virus infects someone and that person quickly becomes very sick and dies, the virus doesn’t get much chance to spread. If the infected person feels well enough to ignore the virus and go out and share their illness with other people, that is better for the virus.
The new COVID-19
British scientists discovered a new kind of COVID-19 virus, called B.1.1.7 in September. In December, they increased restrictions and shutdowns, but the new strain of the virus was already responsible for about two thirds of the new cases of the coronavirus by that time.
Another new kind of COVID-19 turned up in South Africa. Like the British variant, it is more contagious but not more deadly. A third variant showed upon Nigeria. There are also now two new strains that seem to have developed in the United States. Researchers in Ohio identified these new variant.
Will the vaccines work against the new strains?
All the makers of the vaccines being rolled out are confident that their vaccines will work against the new strains of COVID-19 as well as against the original variety.
Experts point out that they deal with mutations in viruses all the time, and that vaccine makers know about this.
Are the new strains more dangerous to children?
Scottish doctors said there was “a hint” that the new British variety might spread more easily among children. However, Dr. Stuart Ray, Vice Chair of Medicine for Data Integrity and Analytics at Johns Hopkins, says, “There is no convincing evidence that this variant has special propensity to infect or cause disease in children.”
The new variants are no more likely too cause serious cases of COVID-19 or deaths.
What should we do?
Since the new strains are more contagious, it is even more important for us to do all we can to avoid transmitting the disease.
How can we do that?
- Social distance is still essential. Avoid gathering with people outside of your household. Stay 6 feet away from other people. Don’t spend time indoors with people outside of your household if you can avoid it.
- Face coverings help. Wear a mask whenever you are out in public and whenever you are with people from outside your household. While there was uncertainty about this at the beginning of the pandemic, it is now certain that everyone should wear face masks.
- Wash your hands whenever you are in contact with items and surfaces outside your home. When you leave your house, you should always wash your hands when you return.