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COVID-19 variants: What are they and where are they coming from?

Information and guidance about COVID-19 care and vaccination continues to evolve. Please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the latest.

Lately, we’ve been hearing that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is changing, developing variants that may have different characteristics. As the curiosity catches up to us, we ask, what is that all about?

How does a virus mutate?

For one thing, viruses do mutate. As viruses reproduce thousands and millions of times, they occasionally make mistakes in replicating the RNA or DNA, which is the recipe for “baby” viruses. Most mistakes do not survive, but some do and change the recipe for new viral particles.  

The change may make them more or less likely to survive, more or less contagious, or more or less lethal. As a result, this change — the mutation — may decrease the effectiveness of vaccines against the virus, which is why the influenza vaccine is reconfigured every year.

Several new, mutated coronaviruses have been discovered that are now spreading around our planet. So far, the new models do not appear to be more deadly, but a few have been found to be more contagious. This means that more people may come down with the virus and more deaths can ensue from just the greater number of infected individuals.

Do the vaccines work against new COVID-19 variants?

Recent reports from England indicate that the new variant spreading in that country is now found in up to 70% of all new COVID-19 cases.  Fortunately, the current vaccines seem to work against it. 

However, we may not be as fortunate with future mutations — all the more reason to vaccinate enough people!

“Explore."

In the past, vaccines have successfully eliminated other viruses in our world. There has been great success in diminishing polio and measles, and complete success with eradicating smallpox. 

In order to completely eliminate the virus that causes COVID-19, we must have most of our population immunized by vaccines or from infection by the virus — and that may take a while. Until then, what does work, if done well by all, is masking up, distancing and disinfecting our hands.

Further reading:

About the author

David Winter, MD
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David Winter, MD, is an internal medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Signature Medicine – Tom Landry.

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COVID-19 variants: What are they and where are they coming from?