You are probably beginning to hear more about variants of COVID-19 which are emerging across the globe. There are different variants of the virus, so at times, it’s a little hard to keep up with all of the new information. We asked one state health official to explain why there are new forms of the virus and what we can do to protect ourselves.
What is a variant?
Dr. Paul Byers, State Epidemiologist with the Mississippi Department of Health, explains that viruses, like a coronavirus, are constantly changing. “That’s just part of the normal process. Sometimes, if a mutation occurs allowing that viral strain to have an advantage, it’s more infectious, more easily transmissible, and the vaccine is not effective against it. That strain becomes more of a variant strain leading to significant transmission,” said Byers.
Byers stressed why it’s important to understand that the virus is mutating and modifying all of the time. “One of the things that really leads to and enhances those changes is when you have a lot of people who are getting infected. The virus then has more opportunity to propagate, mutate, change, and emerge as a variant strain with qualities making it more infectious and could lead to a more severe infection. We see the same thing with influenza.”
Byers explained, “The best way to keep transmission low is to follow public health measures such as getting vaccinated. The less virus that’s circulating, the less opportunity there is for a variant to emerge.”
Could we see a variant outbreak like we saw in 2020 with COVID-19?
Dr. Byers laid out a few scenarios. “It certainly is plausible we will see a variant strain emerge that becomes the predominant strain which potentially is more effective and is easier to catch. Potentially, we may have one to develop that vaccines are not as effective against. And potentially, we may have one to develop that causes a more severe infection.”
Byers called this moment in time a “honeymoon stage” because cases are low, but he said we’ve got a long way to go. He emphasized, the key to reducing transmission is vaccination.
Six variant strains have been identified in Mississippi:
Alpha, which is the B.1.1.7 (United Kingdom) strain
Beta, which is the B.1.351 (South Africa) strain
There are two Epsilon, the B.1.427 (California) and B.1.429 (California) strains
Delta, which is the B.1.617.2 (India) strain
Gamma, which is the P.1 (Japan/Brazil) strain
You will notice that the variant names are different than their original identifications. Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced variants of the coronavirus will now be named after letters of the Greek alphabet, to simplify the variants’ names and avoid names that can be stigmatizing to a country.
By the numbers:
As of June 11th, the Mississippi Department of Health reported 711 cases of COVID-19 variants in the state. 628 of those cases are of the Alpha variant with the majority identified in Hinds County, followed by DeSoto and Rankin Counties. There have been 16 COVID-related deaths which contained a variant, but the variant did not cause the deaths.