What you need to know
Variety is the spice of life — except when it comes to viral infections like COVID-19, which is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The more that SARS-CoV-2 spreads, the greater the chance that its genetic material will change, or mutate, creating new variants or strains. The virus builds up mutations as it passes from person to person, possibly becoming a variant of concern (VOC). VOCs may spread more quickly, cause more severe disease, or be resistant to treatments and vaccines.
The good news is that every person has the power to help stop VOCs by slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
Variants taking over
VOCs pop up in one spot, spread rapidly, and eventually dominate in some areas. For example, VOC B.1.1.7 — otherwise known as the Alpha variant — first emerged in the United Kingdom in September 2020. As of June 2021, it has been found in 144 countries and is the most common variant circulating in the United States.
John Mascola, M.D., director of NIH’s Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center, has been keeping an eye on SARS-CoV-2 variants.
“We know that the virus mutates more rapidly than we expected. As the pandemic continues, there will be more variants,” Mascola said. “Vaccines are less effective against some viral variants, and some treatments may not work as well either.”
Examples of SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern
Where it was first found
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Retrieved August 2, 2022 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/variant-classifications.html
Stop VOCs to stop the pandemic
It is important to get vaccinated and maintain COVID-19 safeguards, whether you have already been vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated yet. Limiting the spread of SARS-CoV-2 gives it fewer chances to mutate.
Mascola noted that current vaccines still provide protection against VOCs and are especially effective at preventing serious disease and hospitalization.
“We need to get people vaccinated as fast as we can,” Mascola said. “We need to keep immunity at high levels, possibly by giving booster shots in the future. Most important, we need a global approach to fighting SARS-CoV-2 as it spreads and mutates.”
Where can I go to learn more?
The CDC shares up-to-date information about the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The CDC is monitoring new and emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants to understand the implications for COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.
Answers to common questions about COVID-19 vaccines and guidance on scheduling vaccine appointments.
Information on SARS-CoV-2 transmission and guidance on how to protect yourself against getting COVID-19.
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NIH COVID-19 Resources by Topic
COVID-19 research information and resources by topic from NIH institutes and centers