Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus has been mutating.
While most of these mutations have been harmless and flown under the radar, scientists have recently detected several new variants that spread faster from person to person than other strains of the virus. Now that these more contagious strains have reached the United States, there is concern that we are going to see another spike in coronavirus cases if precautions aren’t taken.
What do you need to know about the new coronavirus strains? Chief Medical Officer and infectious disease specialist Dr. Emilio Dominguez returns to shed some light on these new coronavirus variants and how you can best protect yourself against them.
Related: 10 Questions About the COVID-19 Vaccine Answered by an Infectious Disease Specialist
1. What are the new coronavirus strains?
The mutation of COVID-19 isn’t anything new or unexpected. A virus spreads by making copies of itself, and sometimes those copies are imperfect. These mutations are usually harmless, but sometimes a mutation can help the virus survive and spread more easily—these types of mutations are what result in new strains of the COVID-19.
As of January 2021, scientists have identified three new coronavirus variants that spread more easily than older strains. All three of these variants have been detected in the US.
- The UK variant (B.1.1.7) – First identified in the UK, the B.1.1.7 variant has just recently been found circulating in the US. It appears to be 56% more transmissible than other widespread strains.
- The South African variant (B.1.351) – First identified in South Africa, this variant has the same mutation as the UK strain (B.1.1.7) that allows it to spread more easily.
- The Brazilian variant (P.1) – First identified in Brazil, this variant has the fewest number of known cases in the US, but is also very transmissible. Some scientists are concerned because the P.1 variant may be able to reinfect people after they’ve recovered from COVID-19, but there isn’t enough information yet to confirm or deny this.
Click here to view a CDC map with the locations and prevalence of each of these new variants in the US.
Please note that information about these new variants may change as we learn more. Keep an eye on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and your state and local news for the most up-to-date information about the coronavirus in your area.
2. Are the new COVID-19 strains more dangerous?
All 3 new strains seem to be more contagious than the current most widespread strain, but they do not seem to cause worse symptoms or higher rates of death.
That being said, more people getting sick will put a strain on the US medical system, which can result in more deaths. To avoid catching the virus or spreading it to others, it’s important to continue staying home when you can and wearing a mask when you go out. Doing your part can keep your entire community safe.
3. What makes the new strains different?
As viruses replicate and spread from person to person, they can mutate over time. Sometimes these mutations can change the way a virus manifests or spreads.
In terms of the coronavirus, a mutation caused the virus to become more transmissible, meaning it has an easier time spreading between people. This happened three separate times in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil.
In the new coronavirus variants, mutations to the virus’ spike proteins allow them to cling to human cells better than they could before—which is why they’re more infectious. However, current vaccines target these spike proteins directly, making them effective against these new strains.
4. Do they cause different symptoms?
As of January 2021, there isn’t any evidence to suggest that the new strains have different symptoms, make symptoms more severe, or have a higher rate of death. The new variants can cause the same COVID-19 symptoms as the most common strain, including:
- Sore throat
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Loss of taste and/or smell
If you experience these or any other concerning symptoms, stay at home and call your doctor for advice on what to do.
5. Do coronavirus tests check for these new strains?
Yes, current coronavirus tests can detect these new strains. Antibody tests, which can be used to check if someone has previously been infected, can also detect antibodies from these new strains once someone has recovered.
However, a positive test may not be able to tell which strain someone has been infected with.
If you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, it’s important to stay home and keep your household isolated from others. If you begin to experience serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or severe chest pain, go to the nearest hospital or emergency room for treatment right away.
6. Does the vaccine work against the new strains?
Yes, the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna will give you some protection against the new coronavirus strains, but they may not be fully effective. Scientists are currently collecting data to determine how well the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines work against the new strains of the virus.
Pfizer and Moderna have also announced they are looking into adjusting their vaccine formulations to help protect against these new strains. Additionally, Moderna is developing a booster against the South Africa variant as a precaution.
On January 29, Johnson & Johnson announced that its vaccine is 66% effective against the coronavirus overall. However, the results varied by the country it was tested in—it was 57% effective on volunteers in South Africa, where the new B.1.351 strain is prevalent.
7. Should I still get vaccinated?
Yes. Even though there are new strains of COVID-19, you should still receive a vaccine as soon as one is available to you.
The current Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are 95% effective against the most common strain of the coronavirus and can still help keep you from getting sick, no matter the variant.
8. How can I stay safe if I can’t get vaccinated yet?
The new strains still spread in the same way: through respiratory droplets that enter the air when someone coughs, sneezes, or talks. That means that current recommended protection measures will also help reduce the spread of these new coronavirus variants.
To keep yourself and others safe:
- Stay at home as much as possible, especially if you feel sick
- Wear a mask that covers both your mouth AND nose when out in public
- Wash your hands with soap and water
- Practice social distancing—stay 6 ft away from people when you’re outside your home
- Avoid gatherings where social distancing isn’t possible
Get Notified About the Vaccine In Your Area
Here at Florida Medical Clinic, we’re planning to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine at our offices in Hillsborough and Pasco counties when it becomes available to the general public. Unfortunately, we still don’t know when that will be, but experts estimate late Spring or early Summer 2021.
You can go to myvaccine.fl.gov to see if you meet the current eligibility requirements and make an appointment at your nearest vaccine distribution location.
While there’s still a lot of unknowns about these new coronavirus variants, there’s one thing scientists and doctors agree on: staying at home when possible, getting vaccinated if you’re eligible, wearing a mask in public, and staying socially distant continue to be the best ways to avoid catching and spreading COVID-19.
Florida Medical Clinic will continue to provide updates on COVID-19 and vaccine availability on our blog and in our newsletter, which you can sign up for on our website here.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Always talk with your doctor before starting or stopping medications or treatments.