The coronavirus crisis has added a number of words to our everyday lexicon–there was a time, not too long ago, when no one would have understood the phrases “mask requirements” or “social distancing.” But over roughly the past year and a half, these terms have become centerpieces of ordinary conversation. As time goes on, another such term is rapidly insinuating itself into the collective consciousness–variants. It’s the latest in a long string of uncertainties about COVID-19, but is there anything we know for sure?
What Makes a Variant?
Although many differences may be found between one virus particle and the next, not every difference constitutes a new variant. For a virus mutation to be considered a variant of COVID-19, it needs to display one of three key criteria: (1) greater transmissibility, (2) more severe symptoms, or (3) increased resistance to countermeasures. Viruses that have genetic differences from the original particle are considered “of interest” but do not receive the label of “new variant” without displaying at least one of these characteristics.
The medical community has succeeded in identifying several variants already. For ease of reference, each is given a relatively brief name, often the country where it was first identified. The British variant, for example, was identified to have particularly high communicability and pose a greater-than-average risk to pregnant women.
Not every variant is named for where it was discovered. The more recently discovered Delta variant, for instance, has been identified as being more resistant than others to public health measures, including the vaccines being distributed in many countries.
Researchers all over the world are tracking cases of potential variants that have been newly discovered and have not yet displayed the requisite characteristics to be deemed a variant of COVID-19. Among the most worrying of these is the Lambda variant. While only one such characteristic is needed to have the new form of virus ruled a “variant,” Lambda has been displaying all three and has been discovered in enough places in the world to have researchers worried about a widespread outbreak.
Should I Worry?
Worrying constantly about the variants is an unhealthy habit and unlikely to have a positive effect against the virus. But there are some things that you can do to help both yourself and others stay safe. Masking up, especially when in public places, is a good start. Careful handwashing and sanitization of shared surfaces is another way to keep the virus at bay. The best way found so far is widespread vaccination against the virus–although there are some variants that are proving resistant to vaccination, it is the widespread consensus of the medical community that being vaccinated is better than not.
If you feel you may have contracted COVID-19 of any type, see a local healthcare provider about getting tested. Follow instructions regarding hygiene in the testing center carefully; if any medication, treatment, or quarantine is prescribed for you, strictly follow your doctor’s advice.
Sadly, variants are rapidly manifesting as the next step in a global public health crisis. Be aware of the risks they pose and the measures that can be taken to stay safe as the virus changes over time.