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Understanding the language behind COVID-19 variants

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With all the conversation surrounding the different COVID-19 variants, it is difficult for the layperson to discern who to trust and how to take further precautions against new “variants of concern,” as indicated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Jesse Erasmus, an acting assistant professor in the department of microbiology and the director of virology at HDT Bio, explained the different COVID-19 variants and why they are circulating among the general public. 

“All viruses mutate, so it's completely normal, but these mutations are potentially associated with enhanced transmission,” Erasmus said. 

Enhanced transmission is particularly lethal for unvaccinated individuals, including children under the age of 16, and individuals with underlying conditions. Much of the doubt surrounding COVID-19 vaccines and confusion as to whether vaccinated individuals can transmit the virus stems from the misunderstanding of several virology terms. 

COVID-19 is an abbreviated form of the 2019 novel coronavirus, aka SARS-CoV-2. This does not mean that individuals who are asymptomatic have the coronavirus. Instead, individuals who are asymptomatic have a coronavirus infection; a disease specifically refers to falling ill (i.e. showing symptoms and experiencing complications) from the coronavirus. 

Additionally, breakthrough cases refer to cases where individuals who have been fully vaccinated become infected with SARS-CoV-2. A breakthrough case may be an infection where an individual tests positive but does not experience complications from SARS-Cov-2, or it may be a disease if that individual displays symptoms and becomes ill from the coronavirus. Variants relate to breakthrough cases because some variants, such as Beta, may be vaccine-resistant or spread much more rapidly, like Delta. 

“The thing that sets [these variants] apart is the identity of the mutations and where, in the genome or the virus, they're located, and the phenotype or how those mutations affect the nature of that virus to grow, cause disease, transmit, and a lot of different characteristics that may be influenced by these mutations,” Erasmus said. “Those are the main things that set them apart.”

Fortunately, Erasmus has reported seeing few breakthrough diseases among vaccinated individuals, despite the presence of breakthrough infections. Erasmus is currently working on research for a vaccine to reduce the number of breakthrough infections by studying the genomic sequence of variants. 

Although Erasmus and other virologists will study the variants, it is generally not a topic that should concern the public. It is highly unlikely that an individual who tests positive for the coronavirus will know if they have a variant, as well as which variant they have. 

“The only way to [know that] is with genomic surveillance, which is basically someone would have to collect a sample and sequence that sample,” Erasmus said. “And genomic surveillance is costly, requires patient consent, and for the most part is not conducted in most places.” 

Instead of dwelling on the COVID-19 variants, Erasmus suggested following CDC guidelines to keep individuals safe from the coronavirus: wear fitting masks (ideally N95s) in semi-crowded, indoor spaces, and to opt for outdoor gatherings when possible; get vaccinated; and continue to social distance.   

Erasmus also recommended that people consider getting a booster shot from either Moderna or Pfizer (after consulting a doctor) if they received a single-dose vaccine such as the Johnson & Johnson vaccination. 

“There's already data that does suggest that it helps,” Erasmus said. 

Ultimately, regardless of the variants and whether an individual has a breakthrough infection or breakthrough disease, Erasmus urged individuals to be vigilant for the sake of those around them, especially those who may be in contact with children under the age of 16 or those with risk factors that make them more susceptible to serious disease from the coronavirus.

“If you want to socialize, try to socialize in an outdoors setting,” Erasmus said. 

Reach writer Julie Emory at Twitter: @JulieEmory2 

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