What we know about the coronavirus variants spreading around the world, including whether vaccines block them, how contagious they are, and when they reached the US

  • Experts worldwide are urgently studying three coronavirus variants to understand what risks they pose.
  • One variant found in the UK, one in South Africa, and one in Brazil are probably more contagious than the original strain.
  • They have caused cases to surge and the three nations to lock down. Here are nine key questions about the variants, answered.

Experts are urgently investigating three different coronavirus variants — found in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil — that have caused explosive outbreaks and are spreading around the world.

UK healthcare services risk becoming overwhelmed within weeks as the number of new infections surges. Certain hospitals in London have already run out of oxygen, essential for keeping people with coronavirus alive.

Japan, meanwhile, has declared a state of emergency in Tokyo amid rising cases of the variant found in Brazil, which was brought into Japan by travellers from the South American country. The variant is spreading in Brazil too.

South Africa tightened its lockdown restrictions on December 29 because of a variant causing cases to spike.

Often, small genetic changes that a virus makes when it replicates, called mutations, don’t affect its behaviour. But these three coronavirus variants, each evolved separately, appear to have developed similar characteristics that affect how they spread.

Here’s what we know so far

All the variants contain mutations in the code for their spike protein, the part of the virus that it uses to infect cells. Alterations in this area could enable the virus to infect cells more easily, and the spike protein is the target for COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and AstraZeneca.

With information frequently changing, we’ve compiled a list of everything we know so far about the variants, answering nine key questions, such as whether vaccines work on them and whether they have spread to the US.

Read more:

What it actually means that a new coronavirus strain is more transmissible — and how that changes your chances of getting sick

The variants were first detected in the UK, South Africa, and Japan

  • UK — B.1.1.7

B.1.1.7 was first detected in two people in south-east England. It was reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on December 14.

B.1.17 has been identified in 53 countries worldwide, including the US.

  • South Africa — 501.Y.V2

501.Y.V2 was first detected in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in samples dating back to the beginning of October 2020. It was reported to the WHO on December 18.

The UK identified two cases of 501.Y.V2 on December 22, in people who had come into contact with someone who had travelled from South Africa.

501.Y.V2 has been found in 22 countries globally, including the US.

  • Brazil —P.1

The variant found in Brazil was first detected in four people in Japan, who had travelled from Brazil on January 2. It was identified by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases on January 6, and reported to the WHO that weekend.

It has been found in 6 countries worldwide, including the US.

Wendy Barclay, professor of Infectious Diseases at Imperial College London told the Science Media Centre on January 15 that there are other variants that may have originated in Brazil. Some of these have reached the UK, she said.

The variants are more contagious

The B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the UK, is thought to be 30% to 50% more contagious than other forms of the virus, according to Public Health England estimates. This means it is 30-50% better at spreading from person to person than other coronavirus variants.

501.Y.V2, the variant found in South Africa, is thought to be 50% more contagious than other variants, because it has spread 50% faster, becoming the most common strain in people with COVID-19 in coastal regions of South Africa.

P.1, found in Brazil, is probably more contagious — it has infected 76% of the population in the Brazilian city of Manaus, a city that has experienced a surge in the number of coronavirus infections in recent weeks.

It’s not known precisely why the variants are more contagious

Research is ongoing, but working theories are that both variants have changes in the spike protein, meaning they can potentially infect cells more easily. The swabs of people infected with B.1.1.7 and 501.Y.V2 also appear to have more viral particles than the original virus, known as a higher viral load. The more viral particles an infected person expels, the more likely they are to infect others.

The variant first found in South Africa — 501.Y.V2 — has been shown in early lab studies to sometimes avoid antibodies, produced by the body to fight off infection. If this happens in humans, it could mean it infects people more easily and could increase the likelihood of catching coronavirus more than once.

A mutation called E484K could be responsible for this — the variant found in Brazil has it too. B.1.1.7, the variant first found in the UK, doesn’t have this particular mutation.

Pfizer covid 19 vaccine distribution
Medical assistant April Massaro gives a first dose of Pfizer BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine to nurse Alice Fallago at Desert Valley Hospital on Thursday, December 17, 2020 in Victorville, California. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

They could be more deadly

The variants at present do not seem to cause more severe disease,the WHO said on January 11. However, a more contagious variant could cause more deaths, because more people get sick.

Adam Kucharski, an associate professor at the London School for Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, has explained to Insider why the ability to spread more easily could make the variant more dangerous than a deadlier strain.

There is evidence from South Africa that when hospitals became under pressure, the risk of death increased.

The UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) reported a model on January 21 that showed someone infected with B.1.1.7 is 30 to 40 per cent more likely to die than someone with a different variant, but there is a lot of uncertainty around the numbers.

Human behaviour can help stop them spreading

The WHO has said that because the variants are more contagious, everyone should double down on precautions that stop their spread, such as social distancing, hand-washing, mask wearing, and avoiding crowds.

“Human behaviour has a very large effect on transmission — probably much larger than any biological differences in SARS-CoV-2 variants,” Paul Bieniasz, a virologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, previously told Insider.

Vaccines will probably work

It is too soon to know for sure, but it appears unlikely that the mutations will render vaccines totally useless.

The vaccines available all target the coronavirus spike protein. The spike protein has multiple sites that all cause different immune responses in the body. Mutations could affect some of the sites, but are unlikely to affect all of them.

Pfizer said January 29 that its vaccine should work against some particular mutations that the variants found in South Africa and the UK have, after it tested its vaccine on lab-made variants. This is the second lab-based study the company has performed. The lab-made variants were not the exact variants found in the UK or South Africa.

Moderna ran similar tests, and announced January 25 that its vaccine held up well against the mutations found in B.1.1.7, but less well against the mutations found in 501.Y.V2, the variant found in South Africa. Again it used lab-made variants.

Existing vaccines could also be updated and tailored to a new variant within weeks or months. Or you may require a booster shot.

Pfizer said January 26 that it is already working on booster shots that protect against coronavirus variants. Moderna said January 25 that it will develop a new version of its COVID-19 shot to fight 501.Y.V2, the variant found in South Africa.

  • B.1.1.7 — first found in UK

Experts think the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca will protect people against the B.1.1.7 variant found in the UK. The vaccines haven’t been tested against real-life coronavirus B.1.1.7 variants yet.

  • 501.Y.V2 — first found in South Africa

Studies suggest that the variant can escape some antibodies in the lab — researchers don’t yet know how, or if, this will affect how well vaccines work in people.

The vaccines haven’t been tested against real-life coronavirus 501.Y.V2 variants yet.

Tulio de Oliveira, who is leading South Africa’s scientific effort to understand the variant, told the Financial Times that his group thinks a vaccine could be a little less effective, but is optimistic. “Between all the varieties of vaccines that are coming to the market, we still have strong belief that some of them will be very effective,” de Oliveira said.

Read more:
What’s coming next for COVID-19 vaccines? Here’s the latest on 11 leading programs.

The variants could affect more young people

Experts have said that the B.1.1.7 variant could affect kids more than previous variants, but evidence is still emerging.

Public health experts in the Western Cape, South Africa have said that the proportion of young people who have been hospitalized and died from COVID-19 in South Africa has remained the same, but there are more young people in hospital, because more people overall are sick.

COVID-19 treatments could still work

There is no evidence currently to suggest the B.1.1.7 mutations mean that COVID-19 treatments are less effective against this variant.

Scientists think that a mutation found in the variant first identified in South Africa could mean that certain antibody drugs do not work as well.

But dexamethasone, a steroid, would probably still work just as well.

All three variants have been identified in the US

In the US, 293 cases of B.1.1.7 — the variant first found in the UK — have been identified, according to the CDC. The variant has been found in multiple US states, including New York, Florida, and California. Experts believe it had been circulating in the US for several weeks.

The variant identified in South Africa, 501Y.V2, was first detected in the US on January 28.

This could be because genetic sequencing isn’t sufficiently widespread.

There is one known case of P.1, the variant found in Brazil first identified in Japan, in Minnesota in the US. The Minnesota resident who got infected with P.1 had recently travelled to Brazil, the Minnesota Department of Health said on January 25.