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Covid-19 New Variants: How Concerned Should We Be?

With a new year at hand, there is reason to feel hopeful in the fight against Covid-19. As of the end of February 2021, cases have continued to fall globally for consecutive weeks. Vaccines have shown great promise and have begun to roll out in many countries.

Despite the encouraging news, there is new information that has some citizens and health officials feeling uneasy. While vaccine development and distribution are encouraging, experts warn that the fight is not over, as the virus has shown the ability to adapt and mutate recently

Several new virus mutations have been discovered in recent months that may be more deadly and spread faster. These developments have many people concerned that the vaccines may not work against these new mutations. These new virus variants show that more work is needed, and that caution must remain a priority when considering relaxed safety measures.

What Is Covid-19?

Covid-19 is a disease caused by a new type of coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. It was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan China. It spread rapidly, resulting in a worldwide pandemic.

The virus is spread from person to person through droplets released into the air when coughing or sneezing. Common Covid-19 symptoms include fever, cough, body aches, sore throat, shortness of breath, and loss of taste or smell.

Although many Covid-19 cases are mild, the virus can cause severe respiratory symptoms that can lead to death. Symptoms typically appear around 2-14 days after exposure to the virus.

Why the Virus Mutates

Genetic variants of the virus have been long expected, as mutations are a common property of viruses. Changes in the genetic code of viruses occur naturally over time as the virus spreads from one host to another. Many times, the virus mutations are benign, but some virus mutations result in stronger and more efficient versions. Mutations that are beneficial to the virus’s survival beat out weaker variants and flourish. 

Genetic variants of the virus have been long expected, as mutations are a common property of viruses. Changes in the genetic code of viruses occur naturally over time as the virus spreads from one host to another. Many times, the virus mutations are benign, but some virus mutations result in stronger and more efficient versions. Mutations that are beneficial to the virus’s survival beat out weaker variants and flourish. 

Although Coronaviruses tend to mutate at a slower rate than other virus types, Covid-19 has been able to spread quickly and largely unrestrained all over the world. With time, this has resulted in several mutations that are now known to be more contagious and more resistant to vaccinations. Some of these variants have become dominant strains. 

New Virus Variants

At least three new variants have appeared in recent months, raising new concerns about public safety.

UK: B.1.1.7

In the UK, health authorities reported a new variant commonly known as B.1.1.7 that was first documented in December of 2020

The new variant has become the dominant strain in large parts of Britain and has since spread to numerous countries including the United States and Canada. 

Brazil: P.1

In the UK, health authorities reported a new variant commonly known as B.1.1.7 that was first documented in December of 2020

South Africa: B.1.35

The South Africa variant, known as B.1.35, is the dominant strain in parts of South Africa, but it has also spread to at least 20 other countries, including the UK.

The South African variant does not show evidence that it makes its hosts more ill than other variants. Yet, there are concerns that it spreads faster, which could lead to spikes in cases.

Government Response and Strategy

The Biden Administration has made getting the virus under control a top priority in the early days of the presidency. With a string of executive orders, President Biden and his team laid out a roadmap called the “National Strategy for the Covid-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness.”

Key takeaways

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is mutating and will continue to mutate in the future. This is a perfectly normal way for RNA viruses to behave and scientists are emphasizing that it is not a cause for alarm. 

Fortunately, the latest COVID-19 strains do not appear to be any deadlier than earlier strains and current vaccines are anticipated to have a positive effect on the pandemic overall. In the future, pharmaceutical companies will probably need to adapt their vaccines to account for mutations, something they already do every year for viruses such as influeenza.

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