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About virus variants, you should know these five things

Time : 2021-05-17 Hits : 44


The world has come a long way in the fight against COVID-19, but new variants of the virus could threaten progress weve made over the past year. Here are five things you should know if you want to understand how variants are (and arent) complicating the pandemic.


  If youve ever gotten a flu shot, youve already dealt with a virus variant.

Viruses evolve all the time. Unless you work on infectious diseases, the idea of a variantmight seem new and scarybut theres nothing particularly unusual about them. Influenzas ability to mutate quickly (Ill 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.



 Were 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. Thats because there is so much virus circulating around the world, giving it more opportunities to change. Once case numbers go down, I suspect well 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 its deemed necessary. Here in the United Stateswhere the majority of people will likely be vaccinated by the end of the summersome 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. Thats true with the original virus, and its 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 evolveand to develop new ways of fighting our defenses against it. If we dont get the vaccine out to every corner of the planet, well 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 itjust as we saw with COVID-19. I hope the difference next time is that were better prepared to spot these variants earlier.


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