About virus variants, you should know these five things
The world has come a long way in the fight against COVID-19, but new variants of the virus could threaten progress we’ve made over the past year. Here are five things you should know if you want to understand how variants are (and aren’t) complicating the pandemic.
If you’ve ever gotten a flu shot, you’ve already dealt with a virus variant.
Viruses evolve all the time. Unless you work on infectious diseases, the idea of a “variant” might seem new and scary—but there’s nothing particularly unusual about them. Influenza’s ability to mutate quickly (I’ll talk more about this in the next section) is why we get a new flu shot every year. We need to update the vaccine annually to keep up with constantly shifting flu virus strains.
We’re seeing the same mutations pop up again and again. That may be good news.
All viruses evolve, but not all viruses evolve at the same rate and in the same way. Some, like the flu, change rapidly. Others mutate slowly. Fortunately for us, SARS-CoV-2 is in the latter camp. It mutates about half as fast as the influenza virus.
I know it feels like new variants are popping up all the time right now. That’s because there is so much virus circulating around the world, giving it more opportunities to change. Once case numbers go down, I suspect we’ll see new variants emerge much less often.
The virus is changing, but the path to ending the pandemic remains the same.
For the last year, public health experts have been repeating some form of the same message: we need to contain COVID-19 as best we can until the vaccine is ready and available for everyone.
The good news is that many of the vaccines being used today appear to prevent severe disease, even from the new variants. This is a tribute to how effective the vaccines are in general. We still need a lot more data about how effective every vaccine is against the different variants, but many of the early numbers are reassuring (especially out of Israel, where many people are already vaccinated and the B.1.1.7 strain is dominant).
The big question now is whether we need to update the vaccines to target the variants. Regulators and drug companies are working on a modified vaccine that could be out in a couple months if it’s deemed necessary. Here in the United States—where the majority of people will likely be vaccinated by the end of the summer—some people may end up getting a booster shot that protects against additional strains.
Variants make it even more important that vaccines are made available everywhere.
COVID-19 anywhere is a threat to health everywhere. That’s true with the original virus, and it’s true when it comes to variants.
The more the virus that causes COVID-19 is out there in the world, the more opportunities it has to evolve—and to develop new ways of fighting our defenses against it. If we don’t get the vaccine out to every corner of the planet, we’ll have to live with the possibility that a much worse strain of the virus will emerge. We could even see a new variant emerge that evades existing vaccines altogether.
We can do better next time.
Virus variants are inevitable. If we ever find ourselves in a pandemic scenario again where a pathogen is spreading around the globe, we should expect to see it adapt to survive our attempts to stop it—just as we saw with COVID-19. I hope the difference next time is that we’re better prepared to spot these variants earlier.