COVID-19 variants with Stanley Perlman, MD, PhD

As of Feb. 23, 10 confirmed cases of the more-contagious B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19 have been identified in Iowa.

UI coronavirus expert Stanley Perlman, MD, PhD, answers questions about variants of the COVID-19 virus and how we should respond to their emergence in Iowa:

What is a variant?

It is normal for RNA viruses (viruses with ribonucleic acid as their genetic material) to mutate, creating new variants of the original strain. As part of their normal lifecycle, these viruses randomly acquire small changes (mutations) in their genetic code. Most of these changes do not alter the virus’s behavior. But sometimes a change can improve a virus’s ability to infect a host or change its ability to cause severe disease. Most often, mutations make the virus weaker or less dangerous.

What do we know about the new variants of the COVID-19 virus?

Several new variant strains of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 have been reported, including one (B.1.1.7) that began widely circulating in the United Kingdom at the end of 2020, and two others from South Africa (B.1.351) and Brazil (P.1) According to the CDC, these variants appear to spread more quickly and easily. It is not clear yet if these variant causes more severe illness or increased risk of death.

Why does it matter?

Variants that are more successful at spreading tend to become more dominant. The increased ability of the new variants to spread from person to person means they could cause even more cases that the original strain. Even if the new strains are not more dangerous than the original virus, more cases can lead to an increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths from the virus, depending on the patient who gets infected and their characteristics.

How do I protect myself from the new COVID-19 variants?

The good news is that all the safety precautions that work to prevent the spread of the original COVID-19 strain—masks, avoiding crowded indoor gatherings, physical distancing, and hand washing—will also work to combat the spread of these new variants. In addition, vaccinations should proceed as quickly as possible since current studies suggest the existing COVID-19 vaccines provide complete or partial protection against these new strains and will also decrease the amount of virus in the community.