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Covid variants — what you need to know

20 Jan 2021

The news on Covid variants has left many of us confused about what this means for the future. Dr Annette Alaeus, Livi’s Head of Infectious Diseases, explains

Quick facts

  • The virus is mutating all the time — scientists were expecting this
  • There is no evidence vaccines won’t work against the new variants
  • As the virus mutates, it might become less dangerous

There’s been a lot in the news about Covid-19 mutating. You may have heard reports that more contagious variants of the virus have emerged in the UK, South Africa and more recently, Brazil.

Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Multiple variants of the virus that causes Covid-19 have been documented globally during this pandemic.

What do we know so far?

Whenever a cell or virus reproduces, there’s a chance that some of its genetic code won’t be copied accurately. This is known as a mutation.

Most of these mutations have little, or no impact, on the way a virus spreads or how dangerous it is. But if there are a lot of mutations all at once, or a single and significant mutation on an important bit of the genetic code — like the spike protein on Covid-19 — it can change the virus so much that it is classified as a new variant.

Multiple Covid-19 variants are circulating globally. In the UK a new variant has emerged which seems to spread more easily and quickly than other variants. Currently, there’s no evidence that it causes more severe illness or increased risk of death.

In South Africa, another variant has emerged independently of the variant detected in the UK, though it does share some mutations with the UK variant. There have been cases caused by this variant outside of South Africa and it seems to spread more easily and quickly than other variants. Currently, there’s no evidence that it causes more severe illness or increased risk of death.

There are now reports emerging of a new Covid-19 variant from Brazil, first detected in Japan in Brazilian travellers.

Dr Alaeus says, ‘None of this comes as a surprise to the scientific and clinical community. We knew that the virus which spread through Wuhan was not the same as the Covid-19 virus we first saw in Italy.’ And we knew Covid-19 would continue to mutate and create new variants.

Dr Alaeus adds, ‘We were prepared for this.’ Ever since the pandemic began, scientists have been sequencing the Covid-19 genome, and examining thousands of different mutations, to identify emerging variants which might be more dangerous.

How are the new Covid variants detected?

In Europe, the UK leads the way in this testing. Since it was set up in April last year, COVID-19 Genomics UK — a consortium of public health agencies and academic and research institutions — has sequenced 140,000 virus genomes from people infected with Covid-19.

Dr Alaeus says, ‘In the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands they’re very good at doing this, it’s happening all the time, but in other countries they’ve not been doing sequencing on a regular basis. If you’re looking for variants, you will find them.’

So it was only because they were looking for it that scientists identified the new, more contagious UK variant that emerged late last year.

Similarly Denmark, which also carries out more of this genomic testing than many countries in Europe, was quick to identify a new variant of Covid-19 in mink.

And while the UK and South African variants have attracted a lot of media attention, almost 4,000 versions (that is, changes in its genetic code), of the Covid-19 virus have been identified. Most, like a rare variant with a change to the spike protein which was identified in Stockholm in April, are only reported in scientific journals.

Should I be worried?

There’s no evidence that the new variants cause more severe symptoms. Although more under-20s have been infected by the new UK variant, this could be simply because it’s more infectious and it emerged when schools were still open.

Dr Alaeus says, ‘The new variant which was identified in the UK has lots of mutations on the receptor binding domain, which helps it lock on to human cells. That’s why it appears to be much more transmissible. But we don’t really know how important these changes are.’

How effective are the vaccines for the new Covid variants?

More importantly, there’s no evidence that any of the new variants will reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines now being rolled out across the globe.

Dr Alaeus explains, ‘The vaccine manufacturers have taken neutralising antibodies from people who’ve been vaccinated, and exposing them to new virus variants in the laboratory and shown they’re still able to neutralise the virus.’

Public health bodies across Europe are now on alert to investigate any cases of Covid-19 in people who have been vaccinated, or been infected for a second time.

And even if vaccines do become less effective, they will still work. Dr Alaeus says, ‘These vaccines are so effective that even if it goes down from 95% to say, 70% efficacy, it won’t make a huge difference. It won’t suddenly go to zero.’

And as more people develop immunity, from vaccination or because they’ve been infected, it will also become more difficult for the virus to spread.

These vaccines are also relatively easy to adapt. ‘It might be that we will need a little modified booster, but they won’t be useless,’ Dr Alaeus says. In future, people who are vulnerable may have a slightly different Covid jab at the beginning of each winter, in the same way we do with flu shots now.

Is there good news on the horizon?

New variants of Covid-19 might turn out to be less dangerous, because when a disease causes severe illness it also reduces its opportunity to spread. It’s not actually in the virus’ interests to cause deaths, because we are the host that allows it to survive and spread.

One of the reasons cold viruses are so effective is they produce symptoms which are so mild we often continue to go to work or school — which continues to spread the infection.

Until then, we should all continue to protect ourselves by following our national restrictions, washing our hands regularly, social distancing and wearing a mask when we go out.

This article has been medically approved by Dr Annette Alaeus, Livi’s Head of Infectious Diseases.

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