Over the past weeks, the news of a new coronavirus variant has dominated media circles around the globe. With this new variant, along with others, on the rise, it is more important than ever to stay safe and educated about the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic.
This new variant, formally called B.1.1.7, was first recorded in the United Kingdom in late November and has since circulated to several countries around the world including both Canada and the United States. Though many mutations of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been recorded over the course of the pandemic, this specific variant is notable due to its unexpectedly high number of the swift rate at which it has spread.
More coronavirus variants have emerged in South Africa and Nigeria. Although the variant from South Africa does share some mutations with the variant from the UK, the two emerged autonomously from one another. The variant from South Africa also spreads more quickly and easily than previous versions of the virus, but it does not, however, appear to cause more severe symptoms or an increased risk of death. The variant from Nigeria is also being monitored by the CDC, but it neither appears to cause worsened illness or increased spread, at this time. Though B.1.1.7. has been recorded in the United States, researchers expect similar variants to begin emerging in the US in the coming months.
Though many have referred to this new variant as a strain, the two terms are not synonymous. Whereas virus strains can only be up to 94 percent genetically identical to the original virus, a variant can be almost completely identical. For example, this new variant is over 99.99 percent identical to its precursor.
Throughout the current pandemic, it is important to remember that viruses all undergo constant change. New mutations are seen all the time with almost all known diseases. New variants can emerge and disappear without warning, so it is crucial to study the virus and to also maintain social distancing and other safety measures. It is equally as important to also understand that this variant is not believed to be more likely to result in severe symptoms or death and is most likely still covered by the current COVID-19 vaccines.
The term coronavirus encompasses a large family of viruses named for the crown-like protein spikes that surround their exteriors. COVID-19 is caused by the coronavirus named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Coronaviruses can cause other diseases as well, including the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
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