COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, which stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2. All viruses are unable to live on their own. They survive by infecting a new host that is able to be infected. After a new host is exposed to a virus, the virus infects the host’s cells. Once inside the host cells, the virus hijacks the cell’s machinery to produce more copies of the virus. This process of making new copies of a virus within a host cell is called viral replication.
As these copies are made, mistakes can happen that cause the new copies of the virus to not be exact copies of the “parent” virus. These mistakes are called mutations. Mutations happen all the time and usually don’t result in big changes to the virus. Sometimes, mutations can happen that change the virus in such a way that they change how the virus functions, such as changes to how infectious the virus is (how easy it is to spread the virus to others), the type of illness it causes, or how our immune systems respond to the virus.
What are variants?
Viruses constantly change through mutation and new variants of a virus, that arise from these mutations, are expected to occur over time. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Occasionally, new variants emerge that can pass more easily from one person (or host) to another.
As more people have been infected during the COVID-19 pandemic, more variants have been documented. Scientists continually monitor the virus that causes COVID-19 to look for changes to the virus over time. This helps us better understand how the virus is changing and if these changes might affect how the virus spreads (transmissibility), how sick you could get (disease severity), and how well viral tests, treatments, and vaccines might work on different versions (variants) of the virus.
The best way to stop variants from developing in the first place is to stop the spread of the virus.
Why are some variants concerning?
A variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is considered to be concerning when it increases the risk to human health. The risk to human health could be increased because a variant is able to:
- Spread more easily
- Cause more severe illness
- Escape the immune protection provided by available COVID-19 vaccines or by natural infection with the virus that causes COVID-19
- Make viral tests less accurate
- Make some treatments less effective
Scientists have a system to categorize variants based on how concerning they are.
- Variants of interest show some evidence that they might be of concern. There are currently four variants of interest in the United States that are being monitored. These are B.1.526, B.1.526.1, B.1.525, and P.2.
- Variants of concern show evidence of being concerning. There are currently five variants of concern in the United States that are being closely monitored and characterized by federal agencies. These are B.1.1.7, B.1.351, P.1, B.1.427 and B.1.429 and are discussed in more detail here.
- Variants of high consequence show clear evidence of making our disease prevention measures less effective. There are currently no SARS-CoV-2 variants of high consequence.
For more information on these categories and variants in each category, visit CDC SARS-CoV-2 Variant Classifications and Definitions.
Top 5 Things You Should Know about Variants
- Current COVID-19 variants of concern spread more rapidly and some cause more severe illness.
- Rapid spread could lead to more cases, more deaths, and could overwhelm hospitals and healthcare resources.
- The more the COVID-19 virus circulates, the greater the chances that new mutations or variants can develop.
- Variants of concern have been identified in Virginia and are likely more common in our communities than the number of reported cases suggest.
- Public health recommendations to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 will also work to protect us from these new variants. Keep yourself and others safer by:
- Wearing a mask that covers your nose and mouth when you are around people not in your own household, even if you are outside
- Staying at least 6 feet apart from other people when possible
- Keeping away from large crowds
- Washing your hands often
- Getting the COVID-19 vaccine
- Sign up for your free COVID-19 vaccine and learn more at vaccinate.virginia.gov or call 877-VAX-IN-VA (877-829-4682).
For More Information
- View the VDH Variants of Concern Dashboard here
- Read VDH’s FAQs on COVID-19 Variants
- Read VDH’s fact sheet How can you stay safe from COVID-19 variants
- Read VDH’s Prevention Tips to help stop the spread of COVID-19
- Download COVIDWISE, Virginia’s official exposure notification app
- Click here for more information on Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19.
- More information on the new variants can be found on these websites: