What You Need To Know About The COVID-19 Variants

August 6, 2021

Key Takeaways:

  1. Mutations (changes) to the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are known as variants.
  2. These variants can sometimes change the biological characteristics of the virus -- for example, making it spread more easily -- and thus be of interest or concern.
  3. There are a number of naming systems for these variants, those most recent of which is based on the Greek alphabet from the WHO. 
  4. While a fully vaccinated person is still protected against all of the current variants of concern, there is reduced protection against some, especially when only partially vaccinated or not vaccinated. 
  5. Right now, it is important to make sure people get vaccinated as quickly as possible so the virus can’t continue to mutate in ways that may work against our progress in beating this pandemic, while those who aren’t vaccinated test often so we try to catch outbreaks before they begin. 
  6. Even though the Delta variant is more transmissible and concerning, the same precautions apply.

Now let's get into it: 

A number of emerging mutations to the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have slightly changed its biological characteristics over recent months. As these new versions (or variants) of the virus have taken hold in the proportion of cases we’re observing, we have begun to study them more. 

You may have seen a variety of names for these variants -- B with some numbers and periods, Greek letters, or the name of the country from which it originated or is most commonly circulating.

Let’s break down a few of these variants and explore what this means for vaccines and testing. 

This table outlines the major variants that are circulating and we have under concern, along with the various naming systems. (We will use the WHO label, but other naming systems relate to the evolutionary relationships between different sequences of viruses). While the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant became the most dominant lineage in the United States in the spring because of its evolutionary “fitness” compared to other variants (the ability to compete and survive through reproduction), the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant is on the rise in the United States and worldwide. 

Thus far, all of the available vaccines are effective against the above list of variants in preventing severe illness, even though this efficacy is slightly reduced. The efficacy is further reduced if individuals have not been fully vaccinated -- meaning that either one shot of the two-dose schedule remains, or precautions were abandoned too early after the post-final-shot (usually ~two weeks to build immunity). Meanwhile, because of how our rapid antigen test is designed at Intrivo, we are confident our test will continue to detect this array of variants, and we continue to test against emerging variants to ensure efficacy. 

These variants do not mean that all is lost against COVID-19. However, the fact that these variants can spread more easily and escape part of the immune response (immune evasiveness) that our bodies learn to generate from vaccines means that there is definitely need for extra precaution and care. Even though the Delta variant is of increasing concern because it is more transmissible than any variants yet, the same preventative measures apply. Especially as much of the population domestically and internationally has yet to be vaccinated, testing serves as an extra layer of protection to understand how and where disease is spreading -- especially when the virus becomes more “spreadable.” 

This is where rapid tests come in again -- they provide a valuable, reliable means to determine how, where, and whether or not disease is spreading, enabling us to break chains of transmission faster, even in the face of emerging variants.