COVID-19 Variant Quick Facts: What You and Your Family Should KnowBy now, the whole world is more than aware of COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But to complicate everything, there are different variants of the virus that causes COVID-19. The one that has been making headlines is the delta variant, but what does this all mean, where exactly did these variants come from, and what do you need to know about them?
First off, why are there different variants?
By their very nature, RNA viruses, such as the virus that causes COVID-19, mutate or change over time when they multiply. When a virus’ genome has mutated enough from the original virus it becomes a variant.
What are some of the variants of the virus that causes COVID-19?
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are four primary variants: alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. New variants receive new names based on the Greek alphabet.
Will there be new variants? Will we always have the same variants?
We don’t know if certain variants will survive permanently or not because inevitably new variants will develop. If a new variant has advantages over another like being more transmissible, it will overwhelm other variants and dominate.
What does it mean to be a “variant of concern?”
The CDC defines a variant of concern as one that is more transmissible and causes more severe of a disease. Treatments or vaccines available will also be less effective, and it may be harder to diagnose accurately. If they see changes like this, scientists are concerned enough to monitor the variant closely.
What exactly is the delta variant? How is it different from other variants? Why is everyone more worried?
The delta variant was first identified in India but quickly became an international concern because of its rapid spread. Research has shown it is more transmissible and infectious, and individuals who become sick with it may not respond as well to certain treatments. Individuals who become sick with the delta variant of COVID-19 also have more of the virus in their system and thus get sicker faster. They also potentially spread the virus faster. The delta variant is the dominant variant in the US, accounting for 83 percent of new COVID-19 cases in mid-July as reported by the CDC. This means that in a group of five people who have COVID-19, four of these people have the delta variant. This is all cause for concern, but there are ways to keep you and your family safe: primarily vaccination.
Tell me more about vaccinations and the delta variant. Does it work?
A study from the National Institute of Health Research headed by Dr. Jamie Bernal found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine were almost equally as effective against the alpha and delta variants. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, over 99 percent of recent deaths were among unvaccinated individuals. Most of these new infections were also from the delta variant. CDC data shows that 97 percent of those hospitalized were unvaccinated. This means that if you are vaccinated there is a very low chance of becoming seriously ill or dying of COVID-19. The Mayo Clinic also reported that there is early evidence that vaccination decreases the severity of symptoms and risk of death in vaccinated individuals who do get COVID-19. Overall, it is clear that the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Every major health organization both nationally and internationally agrees on this and encourages vaccination because it both protects you and others in your community from spreading the virus. Additionally, the more people that are vaccinated, the smaller the spread of COVID-19. This means that the virus replicates fewer times, further reducing the risk of more mutations in the virus that could create new variants.
How does the vaccination work exactly?
The two main vaccines in the US are the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Both vaccines contain mRNA, which is basically instructions to make a protein that resembles a protein on the COVID-19 virus. This is not part of the actual COVID-19 virus. When we are injected with this vaccine, these instructions go into our cells. Our cells then take the instructions and make the protein, and exposure to this protein teaches our body that this is something it should destroy because it’s an invader. If our body encounters the actual virus, it recognizes the protein from the virus, and it is better at fighting it off. This prevents you and your family from actually coming down with COVID-19.
Do masks still work against the delta variant?
Yes! Masks are still the best way to offer extra protection from the COVID-19 delta variant. The idea of the vaccine is to prepare your immune system to fight off the virus, but masking will prevent you from coming in contact with the virus. For masks, the CDC recommends masks that fit tightly around the face and have multiple layers. These can be either cloth or surgical masks, and it also helps if a cloth mask has a filter layer. There is also the option to wear a surgical mask with a cloth mask over it to further reduce your risk of exposure to COVID-19. These recommendations remain the same as those prior to the emergence of the delta variant, so you can continue to wear the masks you already have as long as they fit well. According to CDC guidelines, you should still wear a mask, even if you are vaccinated, when indoors.
Do I need to get a booster shot?
As of early September 2021, the only group the CDC immediately recommended a third booster shot for was those who are moderately to severely immunocompromised and received the Pfizer vaccines as their first two doses. This is because these individuals may not have had as strong of an immune response to the initial vaccinations, giving them less protection against COVID-19. As of 9/24/2021, the CDC also officially recommends a booster shot for individuals over 65 or in long-term care facilities. Studies are still underway to evaluate if those who received a Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine should receive a booster later on.
This series of articles around COVID-19 is supported by OCA-APA Advocates Greater Washington DC Chapter internship.