Coronavirus (COVID-19) variants and strains
Updated 19th July 2021 - for the most up to date coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance and information, please visit the NHS or government’s dedicated pages. This advice may differ in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
There’s been a lot of talk in the news of COVID-19 “variants” and “strains”. Some of these headlines have been really worrying, with claims that these strains are more infectious and even more deadly than the original virus.
If you aren’t familiar with the science around viruses, and you’re feeling worried, read on. We’ve put together a simple guide explaining the situation, and offering some helpful tips on how to stay safe.
What are virus variants and strains and why do they happen?
When we talk about variants or strains of a virus, we’re referring to mutations within the genetic code of that virus. In any virus, these mutations naturally occur over time as the virus spreads from one host to the next.
Most of the time these mutations won’t make a big difference to how the virus behaves. Sometimes, though, they might be beneficial for the virus – for example, the changes might allow it to survive longer or infect people more easily. When scientists identify this kind of mutation, they refer to it as a new strain or variant, and look for ways to tackle it.
Virus mutation is the reason why there’s a new flu vaccine every year. If the flu virus never mutated and changed, we’d only ever need one vaccine!
How many strains of COVID-19 are there?
There are many strains of COVID-19 circulating the world, but most aren’t any more harmful than the virus that first emerged at the end of 2019.
At the time of writing this article, scientists are focused on just a few specific variants which are considered to be more harmful. These strains have scientific labels, but they’re commonly referred to using the place name where they were first discovered:
- The Alpha (United Kingdom) variant: VOC202012/01 or B.1.1.7
- The Beta (South African) variant: VOC202012/02 or B.1.351 or 501Y.V2
- The Gamma (Brazilian) variants:
- VOC202101/02 or P1
- VUI202101/01 or P2
- The Delta (Indian) variant: B.1.617.2
How are these new variants more harmful?
We’re still learning a lot about COVID-19 and these new variants, but this is what we know so far.
According to the American institution, The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC): “These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on health care resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths”.
According to investigators in the UK: “There is a realistic possibility that being infected with the variant that was first identified in the UK is associated with an increased risk of death... Early evidence suggests the new variant could be about 30% more deadly but more data are being collected and the position will become clearer over the coming weeks. The absolute risk of death is still low”.
Are new variants of COVID-19 resistant to the vaccines?
One of the most worrying news stories recently has concerned the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and its effectiveness against the new strains. Lots of news sources have reported that this vaccine, which has already been given to millions of Brits, is less effective in preventing illness in people with the South African strain.
Again, we’re still learning about the different strains of the virus, and how the various vaccines work against them. For this reason, it’s difficult to answer these kinds of questions with any certainty.
However, in the study that prompted these news stories, none of the participants were hospitalised or died from COVID-19. This means that, even if one or more of the vaccines is ineffective in completely preventing illness, they may still provide good protection against the most serious symptoms.
At the time of writing this article, studies have shown that the vaccines have already had a dramatic effect on hospital admissions. As reported by the BBC here, hospital admissions in Scotland have “reduced by 85% and 94% for the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs respectively”.
How to protect yourself against new strains of COVID-19
There’s no specific way to protect yourself from new variants. It’s simply a case of continuing to follow the government guidance, even if you’ve already had one or two doses of the vaccine.
- Stay at home or with your household bubble as much as possible
- Wear a mask in public places
- Practise social distancing
- Wash your hands after getting home
For specific guidance for your region, click the links below:
Get tested for COVID-19 with LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor
If you think you might have COVID-19, you should get a test as soon as possible. Tests are available for free through the NHS, but if you aren’t eligible for one of these, you can order a test from LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor.
We supply swab tests, which can detect if you have the virus right now, and antibody tests, which can detect if you’ve had the virus in the past. Click here to visit our online COVID-19 testing clinic and find out more.