Ask the Expert: SARS-CoV-2 variants

An image of the SARS-CoV-2 virusView print quality image
Variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, are being seen in Indiana and across the U.S. Getty Images

Now that the terms COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 have become part of our regular vocabulary, we're all likely familiar with COVID-19 symptoms, ways to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and what to do if you're sick. What we're starting to learn more about, however, is how the virus is changing over time. New variations -- or variants -- of the virus are becoming more common and are rapidly spreading throughout the world.

We asked Ryan Relich, associate professor of clinical pathology and laboratory medicine at IU School of Medicine, director of the IU Health Clinical Virology Laboratory and virus researcher, some frequently asked questions about SARS-CoV-2 variants and what you should be aware of.

Question: What are variants and how do they come about?

Answer: A "variant" is a virus that is genetically different from the version of the virus that was first characterized by scientists.

These genetic differences can result in changes to proteins that comprise the viral particles themselves, such as the spike proteins on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 viruses. In turn, those changes can potentially alter one or more properties of the virus, including its transmissibility and its susceptibility to medical countermeasures like antiviral drugs.

Viral variants arise as a consequence of mutations that occur in their genetic information -- the genome -- when it is copied during viral replication within an infected cell. Some viruses are prone to higher rates of genetic mutations, while others have genomes that are copied with very few of these mutations.

It's important to note, too, that variants arise all the time, and it's not at all surprising that a large variety of SARS-CoV-2 variants have emerged. Fortunately, many of those variants don't stick around, but it's the ones that do that are of interest and, potentially, of concern. Scientists and public health officials need to know if variants that do stick around could spread more easily, could cause more severe disease or are likely to evade the protection offered by vaccines.  

Q: Why should we be concerned about variants?

A: The main reason we should pay attention to variants of SARS-CoV-2, and of any virus for that matter, is because they have unknown potential. We may find variants that cause more severe disease or are more contagious than the original. On the flip side, some variants may be less dangerous than the original virus. We just don't know until researchers have the opportunity to study variants and assess the risks, if any, that they may pose.

Q: Are we seeing variants in the U.S.? In Indiana?

A: Yes, we're seeing variants across the globe, including here in the United States and locally in Indiana. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed a classification scheme for SARS-CoV-2 variants -- Variant of Interest, Variant of Concern and Variant of High Consequence. Currently, there are five Variants of Concern in the U.S.

What we know so far is that some of these variants are more contagious -- spread more easily -- and those variants could lead to more infections and potentially more severe disease. This is of concern because of the possibility of an increase in hospitalizations, which would put additional strain on our health care system.

Q: How effective is the vaccine against variants?

A: In studies done so far, it appears that the three vaccines currently authorized in the U.S. (Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson [recently put on "pause" by the CDC and FDA while questions regarding rare blood clots get sorted out]) do protect people against these variants. This continues to be studied and is another main reason to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you can.

Q: Is there anything we should be doing differently given the rise of variants?

A: We should all prioritize getting the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. This will help protect you and those around you not only from the original SARS-CoV-2 virus but from the known variants as well.

In addition, we all simply need to continue to be vigilant about the same health and safety precautions we've been practicing for over a year now. It continues to be important to wear a mask, physically distance when we're around each other, wash our hands frequently and avoid large crowds or gatherings.