Let’s be honest, dealing with Covid-19 was not easy. The idea of social distancing, stockpiling food, hand sanitizers, constantly wearing a mask, the fear of the world coming to a grinding halt was all too scary. As the pandemic went on new variants were formed. I know what you are thinking; you are tired of hearing about covid, about the rules and regulations. Now the pandemic is cooling off we want to do one final review on the novel virus and the variants that were spawned from it.
There are quite a few variants, in fact, a few months ago it seemed like every time you watch the news there was something new. From Alpha to Omicron, these new variants are still lingering, but have begun to slow down and it seems the virus is starting to become ‘normal’.
With these variants came a lot of questions: Can I get covid-19 again? Do I still need a mask? Do I need the vaccinations? Are my previous vaccines valid? What is Omicron? All over the world scientists, doctors, researchers, and medical personnel are trying to unravel the mystery of these variants, trying to create a safer world.
What is a Covid Variant
Although the idea of Covid-19 variants may seem worrisome, judging from its quick spread, symptoms and initial severity, the concept of viral variants is not new. In fact, scientists and medical personnel explain that Coronaviruses have always existed, they are simply one of the lesser-known diseases to the general human populace.
According to virologists and cell biologists, viruses can evolve and mutate, creating different strains and variants. This can occur not just with pandemics such as Covid, but also in other popular viral diseases and infections such as Influenza (Spanish flu) and HIV. For example, the flu has been around for over a century, therefore it has had plenty of time to mutate, and a new flu vaccine comes out annually to coincide with the new strand for the season.
What You Should Know About Covid-19 Variants
Firstly, mutations and changes in viruses are normal and often expected. A variant occurs when there is a change or mutation in the genetic material of the virus’s genes. According to medical experts, it is the nature of RNA viruses such as Covid to evolve and change, gradually birthing other variants such as Beta, Alpha and Omicron.
~The Science Behind Variants
~The science behind the evolution and development of viruses are complex and diverse. However, they stem from two main sources—recombination and genetic mutation.
~Recombination happens when viruses swap portions of genetic material, which is either RNA or DNA. Mutation is a permanent change in the genetic material of a virus and this can happen by mistake.
~How do These Variants Happen?
~Coronaviruses have RNA (ribonucleic acid) in their genetic material when infected in humans. These viruses attach to the human cell, get inside the cells and make more copies which helps the virus spread.
~During the spread and attachment, if there is a natural mistake, the RNA changes thereby creating what scientists call a mutation. These changes may seem challenging to understand because the changes are random, often times they may make little impact on a person’s health, while others may make a larger difference, therefore forcing doctors and scientists to officially announce a new variant to warn the public of the new and possibly worse symptoms.
~Furthermore, viruses can also evolve and develop through natural selection. Meaning, they can adapt to the changes they encounter in each stage of their life. This selection may also be external on the part of the humans like better hygiene practices or internal through medication.
~Although new variants are expected as this is the nature of viruses, it is important to monitor and keep track of each one. This enables the global society to be more informed, prepared, and alert.
~Despite the emergence of new variants, medical personnel and researchers are continually combating Covid-19, creating a safer, more prepared world. Similarly, Covid has taught us a lot about surviving pandemics.
The Most Recent Variant: Omicron
While the impact of Covid-19 is still waging on, with medical professionals and staff trying to adapt to a post-Covid world, variants and strains keep emerging. The latest variant Omicron, identified by South African scientists, initially causes concern and panic. This was because of the high abundance of mutations and changes in its genetic code.
~According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Omicron variant is one of concern. This is because there are numerous mutations (over 30) which may has had an impact on how it functions and affects the human system.
~As a result, the severity is higher than that of some of the other variants. The Omicron variant spreads easy and does not have full immunity from the vaccination.
~As time has gone on, the Omicron variant has been dubbed the most easily spread strain to date. It has also become one of the most dominate strains in the US. Much research and evidence reveal high transmission. Omicron is highly contagious, competing with the Delta strain. UNICEF asserts the dominance of Omicron in many other parts of the world too, thus the need for safe hygiene practises.
~The effectiveness of vaccines against the Omicron variant is still promising. However, unlike with many strains high level immunity is not certain. In simple terms, if you have had any other variant you can still get this specific strain, but coupled with the vaccine, your symptoms should be mild.
Other Notable Variants
~Alpha is one of the earliest variants of Covid-19 whose discovery was very public. This variant sparked worry and concern on its initial discovery. In late 2020, as the world was trying to grasp the reality of Covid-19 disease and its impact, this new strain of the virus emerged in Great Britain.
~~After the emergence of the Alpha variant, there were numerous concerns and speculations that the variant was more severe. Studies revealed more people infected with this strain could end up in the hospital as it was originally more deadly than the original.
~~As a result of the mutations in the Alpha variant, it was believed to be between 30-50% more contagious than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain. Similarly, to the Omicron variant, scientists estimate up to 70% mutations leading to its increased spread. Upon discovery it quickly became the dominate covid strain in the US.
~~Research and evidence revealed that although there was a higher chance of transmission with this variant, the vaccines were still effective in combating it. Vaccinations such as Pfizer and Moderna say that their vaccines are still effective. The vaccines do not prevent contraction but are effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and even death.
~First identified in South Africa and later spreading to other parts of Africa such as Nigeria. Initially labelled as a variant of concern due to its protein spike that the vaccines target to prevent further spread. Also creating increasing concern among scientists and researchers are the dangerous mutations it carries such as N501Y and E484K.
~~There is evidence that suggests that the severity of this strain could lead to increased hospitalizations and even death. Like all strains, those with comorbidities are at the most risk here.
~~Identified in over 50 countries, there were serious attempts to curb the spread of this variant. Also increasing the risk of infection is the mutant strain N501Y that appears to make it more contagious particularly to elderly people.
~~There were general concerns about the efficiency of the vaccines. South Africa stopped offering the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine as evidence revealed it was only 10% effective against mild infections. Other companies such as Johnson and Johnson, BioNtech reveal less protection from Beta variants.
~One of the first few variants to emerge and the most popular identified in India, the Delta variant has now been present in more than 150 countries. It remains one of the most dominant strains, although Omicron has quickly eclipsed it. There are also other mutations of this variant such as Delta AY.4.2.
~~Medical experts affirm that individuals who are not vaccinated stand a higher chance of contacting more severe forms of the disease. Individuals who are vaccinated may experience less severe forms of the illness and are less likely to die.
~~Although overtaken by Omicron in December 2021, the Delta variant remains very contagious. Estimates reveal that Delta causes twice as many infections, and that the low rates of vaccinations in some countries is the main reason for its rapid spread.
~~Whereas the spread of the Delta variant is concerning there are numerous vaccines which are useful in combating this variant.
- Two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were 88% effective 2 weeks after the second dose.
- Two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine available in the U.K. were 60% effective.
- Both vaccines are 33% effective 3 weeks after the first dose.
~~In the United States, all three vaccines are effective in the elimination of diseases and the prevention of further spread. Although no vaccine is 100% effective, the chances of severity and hospitalization is much lower.
Other Variants of Less Concern
Scientists and Researchers all over the world are trying to decipher the future of Coronaviruses, even as new strains and other variants develop.
Although the Omicron and Delta variants are the most prominent cause of concern because of their high transmission and severity. There are several variants such as Gamma, Kappa, Zeta, Eta, Iota and Mu.
These variants pose less threat as its transmission is much slower. Ultimately, the future of Covid-19 is still a little uncertain as the virus continues to evolve, the spread-ability and herd immunity has begun to show less and less cases, and even less deaths.
Medical experts continue to advocate for safe hygiene practises such as hand washing, vaccination, boosters. Masks are no longer required in most places. However, they remain optional for those with underlying health issues or other personal concerns.