COVID-19 Variants: What’s Next and What’s Effective

The Omicron variant is becoming a dominant topic of COVID-19 conversation. What about other variants? Emil Lesho, DO, explains how it all works.

Sep. 1, 2021 3   min read

The number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continues to rise as we enter the end of 2021, largely thanks to the Delta variant of the virus. Delta cases account for the vast majority of cases in hospitals – including Rochester Regional Health.

With this variant dominating the healthcare industry and public conversation about COVID-19, it begs the question: what about other variants?

We took that question and several others to Emil Lesho, DO, an infectious disease specialist with Rochester Regional Health who has been deeply involved in studying the virus and its effects over the last two years.

What are variants?

Variants are mutations of a virus. Virus particles spread by getting inside of your body, latching onto your cells, and copying themselves. Sometimes when they are copying themselves, there is a mistake and a slight change is made – creating a new variant. The more a virus spreads, the more opportunities there are for new variants to emerge.

With all viruses, some variants simply die off for various reasons, while others stay around for longer periods. With COVID-19, the SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group (SIG) has created four classes of variants to track which ones could potentially have an impact on therapeutics, vaccines, and other viral treatments:

  • Variants Being MonitoredSome characteristics may affect transmission or treatments, or indicate more severe disease or higher levels of transmission. Some of the variants on this list may have once been Variants of Interest or Concern, but no longer pose a significant threat to the United States.
    • Alpha
    • Beta
    • Gamma
    • Epsilon
    • Eta
    • Iota
    • Kappa
    • 1.617.3
    • Zeta
    • Mu
  • Variants of Interest: Some characteristics may include causing outbreaks of infection, spreading in limited amounts in U.S. and other countries, or possibly affecting transmission or treatments. There were several of these variants that were previously identified but have since been removed from the list.
  • Variants of Concern: Some characteristics may include impacting treatments or vaccines, being more transmissible, or causing more severe disease. The Delta variant is the only current viral strain on this list.
  • Variants of High Consequence: Some characteristics may include vaccines and other therapies showing significantly reduced effects, more severe disease and more hospitalizations. There are currently no variants of high consequence that have been identified.

Can tests tell which variant we have?

Currently, all PCR and antigen tests work for all variants of COVID-19. However, the results of these specific tests will not display which variant a person may have.

“A PCR test, which is the most commonly used COVID test, will run a sample to find viral genetic material,” Dr. Lesho said. “Those typically show results in 24-48 hours. Genome sequencing is used to see which of the variants are in the virus. This is a more detailed type of test, so it takes longer to complete and is usually done in larger laboratories.”

By using a nationwide system of larger laboratories to track cases involving variants, the CDC and other public health agencies can figure out how widespread any given variant is and how it might be changing as it spreads.

How effective are the vaccines against variants?

The good news is that all three of the COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized by the FDA protect against all currently known variants, according to the CDC. This includes the Delta variant.

People who receive the COVID-19 vaccine are better protected against severe symptoms, hospitalization, and death as compared to people who do not get the vaccine.

“While the effect of future variants on the efficacy of the vaccines is unknown, the current data shows those who are vaccinated are protected from COVID infections in the vast majority of cases,” Dr. Lesho said.

Do we know what is coming next?

As with all viruses, variants continue to change as they replicate. There will be more variants, but there is not enough current data to determine how contagious they might be.

No single method of treatment or therapeutics can prevent 100 percent of COVID-19 cases. But all our current research shows the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and any current or future variants is to get vaccinated.

Scientists and researchers have determined the COVID-19 vaccines currently offered by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson provide better protection against the virus and any variants when compared to other treatments or preventative therapies.

Other important ways you can protect yourself and your loved ones include:

  • Wearing a mask
  • Washing your hands
  • Avoiding places where you’ll be indoors with unvaccinated people
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