Frequently Asked Questions
Q: I keep hearing about these coronavirus variants. What exactly does that mean?
A: SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes Covid-19. By nature, all viruses mutate - or change their genetic code - as they spread from person to person. Each mutation produces a new variant, a term used to define a form of the virus whose genetic code differs slightly from the original virus strain. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have seen thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants, and we will likely see thousands more in the future.
Q: If there have already been thousands of coronavirus variants, why are we just now hearing about new, more concerning coronavirus variants?
A: Viral mutations, while inevitable and expected, are often inconsequential. Most mutations, including the thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants that we have already seen, cause very minor changes to a virus's genetic code. However, when a virus like SARS-CoV-2 spreads to millions of people and mutates millions of times, there is more opportunity for the virus to evolve in such a way that makes it more dangerous. That phenomenon is what we are seeing now with the new coronavirus variants.
Q: I see that there are three major coronavirus variants circulating around. What is so special about them?
A: As mentioned above, sometimes viruses mutate so that they become more dangerous. Here's what you need to know about three major coronavirus variants that have emerged in recent months:
The variant from the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7) has an unusually large number of mutations that make it about 50% more transmissible than other variants. Currently, there is no evidence that B.1.1.7 causes more severe illness or increased risk of death. This page from the CDC shows current cases caused by the B.1.1.7 variant. According to the CDC, B.1.1.7 could become the dominant coronavirus variant in the United States by March.
The variant first seen in South Africa (B.1.351) shares some mutations with the variant detected in the UK. Similar to the B.1.1.7 variant, the B.1.351 variant appears to be more contagious than other variants but does not make people more ill or lead to more deaths. The first cases of this variant in the US were found in South Carolina on January 28th.
The Brazil variant (P.1) has more than a dozen mutations, some of which it shares with the South Africa variant, that make it more transmissible than other variants. Recent findings show that the P.1 variant can cause cases of reinfection in individuals who have survived mild illness. On January 26th, the US’s first case of this new strain was found in Minnesota.
Q: How exactly do the UK, South Africa, and Brazil variants spread more easily and quickly than other variants?
A: To answer this question properly, it's first important to understand how the virus infects cells. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has spike proteins that protrude from the surface of the virus, and every human cell has receptors (called ACE2 receptors) to which the spike proteins can attach. In a way, the spike proteins work like shape-shifting lock-picks, and the ACE2 receptors work like locks. In previous SARS-CoV-2 variants, the spike proteins (i.e. lock picks) could sometimes change shape enough to "unlock" the receptor, but not always. These new variants, however, have learned from previous variants' mistakes. Through its many mutations, the virus has figured out how to shape-shift in such a way that they can
more effectively “unlock” the ACE2 receptors and infect the cells. This improved mechanism of infection has caused more people to contract the virus and spread it to others.
Additionally, researchers believe that there may be more virus present in the noses, lungs, and respiratory tracts of people who have these variants of the virus. A greater amount of virus in these areas means that anyone infected would expel more virus while talking, singing, coughing, or even breathing. Altogether, these changes increase how much virus a person sheds, as well as how much of a risk someone with this variant may be to the people around them. This information also informs us about reasons for recent COVID-19 surges.
Q: Will the current vaccines still protect against these variants?
A: Yes. Recent studies have demonstrated that both the UK (B.1.1.7) variant and South Africa (B.1.351) variant seem to be susceptible to the current vaccines. Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have each announced that there is no reduction in their vaccines' abilities to neutralize against the virus.
However, there are mutations in both the South Africa and Brazil variant that may make the virus less recognizable to certain antibodies, thereby reducing how well the vaccine works against the virus. Despite this reduction, the vaccines still produce such a high level of antibodies that they still have the ability to protect against these new variants.
It is not unlikely that the virus will eventually acquire enough mutations to warrant a change in the vaccine. Although we are not yet at that point, researchers are prepared to update the vaccine when the time comes. Fortunately, the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines provides researchers with the flexibility they need to adjust the vaccines quickly and easily. Moderna is currently developing a booster shot for the South Africa B.1.351 variant. Similar efforts will continue to be made as the virus continues to change.
Q: Should I still plan on getting vaccinated?
A: Absolutely. If you were already planning on receiving the vaccine when it becomes available to you, it is recommended that you maintain that plan. As more people become vaccinated, we draw ourselves closer to our goal of achieving herd immunity (the point at which enough people are immune to a disease to make its spread unlikely) and returning to normalcy.
If you want to learn more about the vaccine and if getting vaccinated is right for you, please don't hesitate to reach out to our COVID Community Coordinators or the Minnesota Department of Health to get your questions answered.
Q: How can I protect myself and my loved ones against these new variants?
A: Public health officials and researchers are working as quickly as possible to learn more about these variants and how we can control their spread. For now, we can all protect ourselves and our loved ones by following public health guidelines and taking proper safety precautions. As a reminder, here's what you can do on an individual level:
- Wear a mask (over your nose and mouth) any time you are indoors (unless you're at home with your household members) and if you're less than six feet apart from someone who is not a member of your household. If you're not sure you should be wearing a mask in any particular situation, err on the side of caution and wear it.
- Consider adding another layer to your current mask. Two-layer (or even three-layer) masks are the newest fad! If you're in need of a new mask and aren't sure where to how to get one, call our Covid-19 Resource Line at (612) 254-0116 to get a new mask mailed to you. See the latest CDC masking guidelines here.
- Physically distance from others. Be sure that you are at least six feet apart.
- Avoid crowds, both indoors and out. Avoid other people (excluding those from your household) indoors as much as possible.
- Limit how often you go to the store or other public spaces. Have you been going to the grocery store three times per week? Try to cut down to one visit per week.
- Stay home if you're feeling sick.
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds - since "Happy Birthday" twice through!
- When it's your turn, get the vaccine as soon as you can.