Illustration: Needle in COVID molecule

The development of a new COVID-19 variant is not unique — variants occur in all viruses. And the scientists studying the disease and developing COVID vaccines have always anticipated that new strains would evolve.

Viruses mutate when they replicate and create a slightly different version of the virus.

Sometimes, these variant strains just disappear; these are the viruses that don't make the news and scientists are not worried about.

But occasionally, variant viruses thrive, meaning that they survive better than, and can out-compete, the original virus. They can become more infectious than the original strain.

The current COVID vaccines are our most powerful tool to fight all the strains of COVID-19.

Still deciding about the vaccine or know someone who is? See these 7 reasons to get the vaccine.

What Are the New COVID Variants?

Many variants of COVID-19 have been discovered. There are currently four that the CDC classifies as "variants of concerns."

  • Alpha (B.1.1.7) – First identified in the United Kingdom in late 2020, this variant spread more easily than previous strains. Currently, there is early evidence that suggests this variant may be associated with increased risk of death.
  • Gamma (P.1) – This variant, which has spread widely in Brazil and has been detected throughout the Americas, was first detected in January 2021. It contains more mutations than the Alpha strain that may affect its ability to be blocked by therapeutic antibodies or a vaccine.
  • Beta (B.1.351) – This variant, which was first detected in October 2020, shares some mutations with the Brazil variant and is a similar threat in that the mutations affect its ability to be blocked by therapeutic antibodies or a vaccine.
  • Delta (B.1.617.2) – Initially identified in India in late 2020, this variant is the most highly transmissible of the variants identified so far and may cause more severe illness than other variants. As of August 2021, Delta is the dominant variant being transmitted in the United States.

Do the Vaccines Work Against the New Strains?

The simple answer is yes. At this time, there is no evidence to suggest that these or any other variants of the COVID-19 virus are resistant to the current vaccines. The key points are:

The COVID vaccines are highly effective.

The effectiveness of the current COVID vaccines is quite high. In fact, it is much higher than some other vaccines we commonly receive. As a reminder, the annual flu vaccine has an effectiveness around 40-60 percent from year to year.

The current vaccines cause a powerful immune response that makes them highly protective, even if there is a drop in antibody strength. Antibodies are not the only part of the vaccines that makes them work. There are also T cells and memory B cells and other types of antibodies.

The vaccines prevent hospitalization and death.

All of the current vaccines are highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death.

This is a critical point. Not only will this help relieve the strain on the healthcare system, but the vaccines save lives.

The vaccines help stop new variants.

As we vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, we can stop the spread of the coronavirus. A slow in transmission of the virus means fewer opportunities for it to mutate, which can help prevent the emergence of any other variants.

The vaccines can be updated to be more effective.

Research continues on all the vaccines. If necessary, future COVID-19 vaccines may need to be tweaked, not unlike what happens with the flu vaccine every year. All vaccine manufacturers are continuing to study the effectiveness of the vaccines and are already looking at what a booster might look like down the road.

Reducing the Spread of COVID

The best way to protect yourself and others from the virus – whatever the strain – is to get the vaccine.

Wearing a mask and social distancing are important to protect yourself and prevent spread. The vast majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations around the country right now are among unvaccinated people. However, everyone should follow all masking guidelines, regardless of vaccination status.

Updated 8/30/2021

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