After many months of uncertainty and anxiety, the world saw light at the end of the tunnel when COVID-19 vaccines were approved for emergency use. But shortly thereafter, another headline began appearing in the news: new strains of COVID-19 are being found in different countries – including the United States – and appear to be more contagious than the original strain.
Before discussing the specifics of these COVID-19 strains, it is helpful to know that viruses mutate (change) all the time. When a virus enters the body, it begins making copies of itself; this duplication process is where changes occur in the genetic material of the virus. The new viral particles are then released into the air when a person breathes, which is how the new strain can spread.
A great example to further explain viral mutations is the influenza virus, which causes the seasonal flu. The reason we need to receive an annual flu shot is because the influenza virus changes each year. Scientists research which strains of influenza are predicted to be dominant strains in the upcoming year, and then create the annual flu shot based on this data.
While the news about COVID-19 mutations may seem alarming, at the time of publication scientists believe that these mutations do not cause more severe cases of illness. So far, COVID-19 vaccines also appear to protect against these strains. However, more research is needed to confirm both of these theories.
The good news is that everything we’re currently doing to protect ourselves and others will protect against these strains of COVID-19. Even as people get vaccinated, it is crucial to keep wearing a mask, practice social distancing, avoid crowds, and wash your hands. If new strains of COVID-19 are more contagious, these measures will help reduce the amount of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Remember that these simple steps can make a big difference in our fight against COVID-19.
*Please note that information in this article is current as of the date of publication. More details may become available on this topic and this article may not be updated to reflect current facts. If you have questions or concerns about COVID-19, please call your healthcare provider.