New COVID-19 Variants: What Do They Mean?


More transmissible variants are emerging quickly. An expert explains why it's expected, but concerning.

As national and global coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) cases continue to rise in early 2021, discussion around the pandemic virus has shifted to the emergence and tracking of differing variants, borne out of mutation.

The most significant of recently observed variants—the so-called B.1.1.7. variant, initially traced from southeast England—has spread internationally at a rapid pace. It is anticipated by experts that it is a much more transmissible form of the virus, and could eventually become the dominant variant in the world.

Though this news come as an alarm—and puts even greater stress on the rollout of available vaccine doses in the coming weeks—it’s nothing surprising to investigators.

In an interview with Contagion, Adam S. Lauring, MD, PhD, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Michigan, and author of a recently published JAMA viewpoint on genetic SARS-CoV-2 variants, explained the newly discussed variants have been long-developing and essentially inevitable.

“We may see another variant become the dominant strain,” he said. “That’s a lot of what virus evolution is. It’s just something that we’re going to keep seeing, and the work for scientists is to figure which ones are concerning and why.”

Lauring also highlighted the B.1.1.7. variant, a result of numerous mutations which has allowed for greater transmissibility and the potential for the variant to become globally dominant.

Among the practices necessary to address the new COVID-19 threats are increased sequencing and an improvement of social distance strategies.

“It’s important to put the concern in the right place,” Lauring explained. “The more immediate concern is: if this virus is spreading more rapidly, then it’s going to be harder to control period, with our current practices.”

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