Over the past month, news of new SARS-CoV-2 variants has emerged from around the globe: first in the United Kingdom, then South Africa and Brazil.
Now those strains are in the United States.
The reports are unsettling. Many of us were finally hoping for better days, thanks to the vaccine rollout and a slight dip in positivity rates in this country.
Instead, infectious disease experts warn that the next six to 14 weeks may be the “darkest” period of the pandemic yet if we’re not careful.
We’ve been thrust back into a period of real scientific uncertainty, but it’s also not all bad news.
Struggling to make sense of what’s going on? Here are four common myths about the COVID-19 variants — and some details on what we know (and don’t) so far:
Myth #1: The COVID-19 variants caught health experts by surprise
The recent explosion in COVID-19 variant-related news coverage may make it seem as though these strains popped up unexpectedly.
But this type of situation isn’t new. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains: “Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time.”
Since the pandemic began, health officials have been ready for new strains to develop and spread.
“The variants are not unexpected,” said Priya Soni, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
She added that COVID-19 appears to actually be mutating at a slower rate than other viruses, like the seasonal flu.
That said, the fact that some of these variants have spread widely at this point does suggest they were around before health officials really noticed.
That is, in part, because genomic sequencing of the virus has not been happening nearly enough.
“Though the initial U.K. variant was detected in November, it appears that most of the circulating virus in the U.K. now is this predominant variant — up to 60%,” Soni said.
“This tells us that the variants were present much longer before we discovered them.”
The CDC also notes that some variants, like the strain discovered in South Africa, emerged months before they began getting international news coverage.
Myth #2: The COVID-19 variants are more dangerous
Right now, no one really knows whether the new variants are more likely to cause severe illness or death.
Recently, officials in the U.K. suggested that variant could be more deadly than the original virus, which ran counter to their initial assessment that the variant was just simply more contagious.
When providing this new-ish take, the U.K.’s chief scientific officer offered an example: If 1,000 men age 60 and up were infected, the original virus would likely kill around 10 of them, whereas the new variant might kill 13 or 14.
But that could just be because more people are getting infected since the variants are more transmissible, not because the strains themselves are causing the deaths.
The new variants “spread more easily and quickly than other variants — which may lead to more cases of COVID-19,” according to the CDC. That could lead to more hospitalizations and possibly more deaths.
Experts do expect that more variants could emerge as the pandemic continues ? but they won’t necessarily be worse.
“In general, the way variants evolve over time is they become more infectious and less virulent,” said Eric Vail, director of the molecular pathology program with Cedars-Sinai. He added that viruses don’t want to kill their hosts, because they want to continue spreading.
“It’s less likely that a more deadly form would evolve,” he said.
Myth #3: Our current vaccines don’t work against the COVID-19 variants
At this point, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines (which are the only ones currently approved for use in the U.S.) appear to protect against the known COVID-19 variants to some degree.
Moderna and Pfizer have both said their vaccines are less potent against the South Africa strain.
That is not, however, the same as saying those vaccines don’t work — or work well, even. 2
Also, both drug manufacturers are working on boosters they hope will be even more effective at fighting against COVID-19 variants.
New data on Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine, which could be available for use in the coming weeks, does suggest it is not as effective against the South Africa variant. (But again, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work at all.)
On the whole, physicians and researchers are really hopeful that drug manufacturers will be able to quickly pivot and adapt to new variants as they emerge, especially since mRNA vaccines are more programmable.
“Because these are mRNA vaccine platforms, the changes to the vaccine as mutations occur can be made quite quickly because of our ability to sequence out the specific mutations in real time,” Soni said.
So plan to get a vaccine whenever one is available to you, Vail urged. “Don’t wait. Don’t say, ‘Oh, I’ll wait for the booster,’” he said. “Get it when you can.”
Myth #4: We can’t keep these variants — or future ones — from spreading.
Yes, the new COVID-19 variants are definitely spreading rapidly, both around the world and probably here in the U.S. The CDC has warned that the U.K. variant could be the predominant strain in this country by March.
That might sound pretty startling, but there are known ways to mitigate it. All of the protective strategies that have helped in the fight against the original strain of the virus can also help prevent the spread of variants.
“There is a real ability to prevent the spread of this virus,” Vail said, pointing to proven measures like mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing. Health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, say now is a good time to double-mask, which can create a stronger shield against viral particles.
Our most potent tool is the vaccine. So again, be sure to get vaccinated as soon as you can. It’s possible that the general public will be vaccinated by this summer.
“We’re in a race with the COVID-19 variants, and our chariots are the vaccines,” Soni said. “Ultimately, if we can speed up the process of mass vaccination, we can win the race and thus limit the potential implications of these variants.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.