Illustration: Needle in COVID molecule

The development of a new COVID-19 strain is not unique — new strains, or 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. Researchers are currently tracking five, three of which have been identified in Maryland:

  • UK Strain – The United Kingdom variant spreads more easily and quickly than others. Currently, there is early evidence that suggests this variant may be associated with increased risk of death.
  • Brazil Strain – The Brazil variant contains more mutations than the UK strain that may affect its ability to be blocked by therapeutic antibodies or a vaccine.
  • South African Strain – The South African variant shares some mutations with the Brazil variant and is a similar threat.
  • New York Strains – The New York variants share some mutations with the South African variant and appears to slip past some of the body’s immune response. This variant has not yet been identified in Maryland.
  • California Strains – The California variants share some mutations with the UK variant and may not respond to some therapies. This variant has not yet been identified in Maryland.

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 nearly 100 percent 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 all 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 when it is available to you.

To reduce the spread of this disease, we need to continue following all of the public health measures that we know of, such as wearing a mask, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings, even after you are vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccine will protect you but there is a chance that you can still give COVID-19 to people who are not protected.

Updated 3/31/2021

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