COVID-19 Variants: Are They a Cause for Concern?

Covid-19 Variants

Information about the characteristics of these variants is rapidly emerging. Scientists are working to find out more about how easily they spread, whether they could cause more serious disease, and whether the currently licensed vaccines will protect people against them.


The coronavirus is a group of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more serious illnesses such as pneumonia, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Notably, the coronavirus strain (2019-nCoV) that caused the outbreak in China is new and previously unknown.


COVID-19 is the most recently discovered infectious disease caused by the coronavirus. Both were unknown before the outbreak broke out in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.


On December 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) received reports of the presence of pneumonia, of unknown origin, in the city of Wuhan, in China. Quickly, in early January, the authorities of this country identified the cause as a new strain of coronavirus. The disease has been spreading to other continents such as Asia, Europe and America. 

As for its beginning, the possible animal origin of COVID-19 has not yet been confirmed.

What we know

Viruses are constantly changing through mutation, and new variants of the virus are expected to appear over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and then disappear. At other times, new variants emerge and persist. Several variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus, a large family of viruses. Coronaviruses are named after the crown-shaped peaks found on their surface. Scientists monitor changes in the virus, including changes in the spikes on the surface of the virus. These studies, which include genetic testing of the virus, help scientists understand how changes in the virus can affect how it spreads and what happens to people who become infected with it.

There are different variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 in circulation in the world:

  • The United Kingdom (UK) identified a variant called B.1.1.7 with a large number of mutations in the fall of 2020. Variation reports globally see the world map showing the variant reports in each country. This variant spreads more easily and quickly than the other variants. In January 2021, UK experts reported that this variant may be associated with an increased risk of death, relative to other variants of the virus, but further research is needed to confirm this finding. Since then, it has been detected in many countries around the world. The first case of this variant in the United States was detected in late December 2020.
  • In South Africa another variant called B.1.351 appeared, independently of B.1.1.7. B.1.35 was originally detected in October 2020, and shares some mutations with B.1.1.7. At the end of January 2021, cases caused by this variant were reported in the United States.
  • In Brazil, a variant called P.1 appeared, which was first identified in travelers from Brazil undergoing routine screening tests at an airport in Japan in early January. This variant contains a set of additional mutations that could affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies. The first case of this variant in the United States was detected in late January 2021.

These variants appear to spread more easily and quickly than the other variants, potentially leading to more COVID-19 cases. An increase in the number of cases will put more pressure on health care resources, mean more hospitalizations and the possibility of more deaths.

So far, studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination with currently licensed vaccines recognize these variants. This aspect is being carefully studied and further research is ongoing.

Stringent compliance with public health mitigation strategies, such as vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, isolation, and quarantine, are essential to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID- 19 and to protect public health.

What we don’t know

Scientists are working to learn more about these variants, and further study is needed to understand:

  • How much these new variants have spread
  • How the disease caused by these new variants differs from the disease caused by the other variants that are currently circulating
  • How these variants may affect currently available treatments, vaccines, and tests


Public health officials are rapidly studying these variants to obtain more information to help them control their spread. They seek to understand whether these variants:

  • They spread more easily from person to person
  • Cause milder or more severe manifestations of the disease in people
  • Can be detected with available viral tests
  • Respond to drugs currently used to treat people with COVID-19
  • They affect the effectiveness of vaccines against COVID-19

What is the cause of concern about the new variants of COVID-19? Are they more contagious?

At this time, there are three new variants of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) that cause coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) that are of concern. These variants appear to spread more easily and quickly between people, causing more COVID-19 virus infections. In the US, as in many other countries, all three variants have now been identified. These variants include:

  • A variant identified in the UK. This variant of COVID-19 (B.1.1.7) has 23 mutations. Several of these mutations are in the spike protein S that the virus uses to adhere to the surface of human cells. This variant could be associated with an increased risk of death compared to other variants, but more research is needed.
  • A variant identified in South Africa. This variant (B.1.351) has multiple protein S mutations. There is no evidence that this variant causes more serious illness from COVID-19 .
  • A variant identified in Brazil. This variant (P.1) has 17 mutations, including 3 in protein S. Some evidence indicates that this variant may be less vulnerable to antibodies generated by a previous COVID-19 infection or a COVID-19 vaccine .

Early research still pending completion indicates that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines may offer protection against the variants identified in the UK and South Africa. Vaccine manufacturers are also trying to create booster vaccines to improve protection against the variants.

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