There has been a lot of concern in recent weeks regarding new COVID-19 strains appearing. New variants of the virus have been uncovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil, prompting many countries to place bans on travel from those countries. So how does the COVID-19 virus mutate, how are these strains different, and what are the implications of these strains emerging?

How does COVID-19 mutate?

The reason for COVID-19 mutating relates to how it reproduces. Because COVID-19 is a virus, it lacks the ability to reproduce on its own and relies on hijacking the cells in your body to do so. As the virus uses the machinery in your cells to duplicate itself, it inevitably makes mistakes that alter the genetic code of the virus. While most of these mistakes are inconsequential, some allow the virus to become better suited to surviving and reproducing. This is when a new strain of the virus emerges. The mutations that create new strains of COVID-19 relate to the spike proteins on the virus. These spike proteins are what the virus uses to gain entry into the body’s cells and what the body’s immune system responds to. Therefore, changes to those proteins that allow the virus to more easily spread from person to person will cause that new strain to spread rapidly. While it is likely that the current COVID-19 vaccines are effective against these new strains, researchers are concerned that further mutations could lead to vaccine resistant strains appearing. However, the process of developing a vaccine for a new strain of COVID-19 would be much quicker and less difficult than developing the original vaccines.

What new strains have been discovered?

New strains of COVID-19 appearing is not a new development. Just a few months after COVID-19 was first discovered, a variant referred to as D614G began to surpass the original strain. This D614G variant is the strain of the virus that ultimately became dominant throughout the world. Recently, new strains have emerged in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. These strains alerted public health experts across the world and led to increased travel restrictions from those countries.

What is different about the new strains?

More research must be done to have definitive information on these new strains, but they may be more contagious than the currently dominant strain. It is estimated that the strain discovered in the United Kingdom is between 40 and 70 percent more contagious than the strain that is dominant in the United States right now. With cases of this new strain already appearing in many US states, it is possible that this will be the dominant COVID-19 strain in the United States as early as March. 

What should you do protect yourself and those around you?

Because these new COVID-19 strains are believed to be much more easily transmitted than the currently dominant strain, the best way to protect yourself and others is to practice proper social distancing. Health experts anticipate a rise in US cases due to the strain discovered in the UK appearing in several US states. Be sure to wash your hands frequently, avoid gatherings, wear masks in public areas and keep a six foot distance from others.