So far, roughly 213 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the United States, with more than a quarter of the nation fully vaccinated. The virus is still spreading, with cases rising in many parts of the country.
The Biden administration recently allocated $1.7 billion to fight these troubling variants. Earlier this month, Rush University Medical Center launched an advanced molecular lab dedicated to monitoring and mitigating new strains, in the hopes of preventing outbreaks and further spread.
Here are five things to know about COVID-19 variants:
1. What is a variant? Viruses constantly change through mutation as a natural part of evolution, and variants are expected over time. When the virus infects our cells, it replicates, and sometimes slight changes are made in those copies, causing mutations.
2. Why are variants concerning? Most of those mutations don’t matter much — either they don’t give the virus any new advantage or they disadvantage the virus, so they disappear quickly. But occasionally a variant emerges that’s better adapted to help the virus survive, perhaps by making it more infectious or more easily transmissible. Those are referred to as variants of concern.
3. What variants of concern are in Illinois? More than 1,500 cases of COVID-19 variants have been reported statewide. Of these, 1,141 cases were the B.1.1.7 variant, a more contagious strain first identified in the United Kingdom, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Other variants of concern detected in Illinois include 328 reported cases of the P.1 variant, also known as the Brazil variant;97 reported cases of the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant first found in California; and 19 reported cases of the B.1.351 variant, which was first identified in South Africa.
“These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19,” the state health department website states. “An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on health care resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.”
4. If you get sick, can you tell if you have the original COVID-19 strain or a variant? As of yet, a patient or clinician can’t diagnose a variant case of COVID-19 based on symptoms or how the illness presents. Samples of the virus must be tested to determine whether the infection was caused by the original version or a new strain.
5. How can variants be prevented or mitigated? Medical experts say the same public health tools used to fight the original virus strain — masking, social distancing and vaccinating — can decrease transmission of variants of concern and help prevent new ones from emerging.