In addition to all the news about the COVID-19 vaccine, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about new variants of COVID-19. 

Connecticut Children’s Physician-in-Chief Juan Salazar, MD, MPH, shares what we know so far.

What does it mean when there’s a new “variant” of COVID-19?

A variant is a slightly different version of a virus. Viruses grow inside a person’s body by making copies of themselves. Sometimes, these copies contain random differences, or mutations. Most of the time mutations don’t change anything significant. Sometimes they harm a virus. And sometimes they help it.

If a mutated version of a virus survives, it can start spreading in a community. For example, every flu season, there are usually several strains of the flu going around.

That’s what we’re hearing about now with the new variants of COVID-19.

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Which COVID-19 variants are in the United States?

There are lots of COVID-19 strains in existence around the globe, but experts are most concerned about the handful below. They were originally named based on where they were first discovered (for example, “the U.K. variant”), but the World Health Organization has now started identifying variants using the Greek alphabet.

All of these above variants have been detected in the United States.

How are the new variants of COVID-19 different from previous variants?

The new variants appear to spread more easily than previous variants of COVID-19 – for example, some data show that the alpha and beta variants spread up to 50% more easily, and the delta variant is even more contagious than that. 

Are the new strains of COVID-19 more dangerous?

Some information suggests that the alpha and delta variants – in addition to being more contagious – are more likely to cause severe disease in unvaccinated people than previous variants. Researchers need more data to confirm this.

Will the COVID-19 vaccine still work against the new variants? 

Luckily, yes. Vaccines are critical in protecting against new strains of COVID-19, and preventing them from taking hold in a community.

According to the CDC, the COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the U.S. protect against the variants currently circulating in this country. They might be slightly less effective, but they still offer strong protection. Keep in mind: To have the full protection of Pfizer’s or Moderna’s vaccines, it’s important to get both doses. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine requires just a single dose.

Vaccine manufacturers are also figuring out how to tweak future doses to better protect against new variants.

Should my family be worried about the new variants of COVID-19?

The best thing you can do to combat the new COVID-19 variants is to make sure every eligible member of your family is fully vaccinated.

If your child isn’t eligible yet for a COVID-19 vaccine, make sure they continue to wear masks in indoor public settings, social distance when possible and avoid risky activities. As always, practice great hand hygiene.