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Let’s Talk About New COVID Strains

By now you’ve probably heard that new strains of the COVID virus have been detected around the world, and they have made their way to the U.S. We thought it would be helpful to explain why viruses mutate, and examine the implications of this news for our community’s health.

Let’s look first at how a new strain of a virus appears. Viruses are living organisms. Just like all living things, they learn to adapt to their surroundings. In the case of a virus, its “surroundings” are the different bodies that host it.

We already know that the flu virus mutates (changes) regularly. That’s why we need a flu shot every year. The shot helps protect us against the strain of the virus that scientists believe will be most prevalent in the coming flu season. However, it doesn’t protect against all strains. That’s why you should still take reasonable health precautions (like washing your hands and staying home when you are ill). That’s also why you can get the flu even if you’ve had a vaccination. The good news is that, most of the time, the vaccine will help your body fight off these other flu strains with less overall difficulty. You’ll have milder symptoms and recover more quickly.

The COVID virus is still extremely new to all of us. However, we’ve seen clearly with that not all people respond to it the same way. Some are asymptomatic and never know they have it. Others die due to the impact the virus has on their body. So it’s clear that each human “host” is different.

A virus can change in response to the conditions in a human host. Then, as that strain of the virus is passed along to others, it can gain traction in a population. That’s what we’re seeing with the new strains of COVID that have appeared. At this point, three new strains have been identified. They are known by the region where they first appeared: the South African strain, the Brazil strain, and the U.K strain.

So What Does This Mean for Vaccines?

The variants were not identified when Pfizer and Moderna were running clinical trials on their vaccine. We don’t know how effective those vaccines will be against the new strains. However, just as with the flu, it’s possible that the vaccine might not prevent the new strain of COVID. It is also equally possible that the vaccine will help lessen the impact, even if it does not entirely prevent the virus.

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine is being tested against the original strain of COVID as well as the above-mentioned variants. The J&J vaccine uses a different delivery mechanism (not mRNA) so it might have a different degree of effectiveness. None of that is known at this time.

The CDC is still recommending that you get whatever vaccine is available to you when you are eligible to receive one. This is based on experience with other viruses such as the flu. We know that the vaccine can help mitigate the effects, even if you contract a different strain of the flu than the one for which you were vaccinated. As we all learn more, we may find that a periodic COVID vaccine is needed to fight the virus mutations. We just don’t know. In the meantime, we should prevent what we can prevent.

How Can I Protect Myself?

These COVID variants are said to be more contagious. Given that, plus the fact that we don’t know how effective the current vaccines are against the variants, masking is still an important safety precaution. Initial findings show that double-masking, or using an KF-94 or KN-95 mask, are the best precautions against COVID as well as its variants.

Continuing to mask, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, avoid crowds and social distancing are still extremely important precautions, even if you’ve been vaccinated.

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