You might remember the first time you heard of COVID-19, such as where you were or who you were talking to. Or, you might remember when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic (and maybe had to look up what, exactly, a pandemic actually is). Or, you might remember when restaurants, gyms, offices, schools, and the world seemed to shut down, changing life as we knew it.
Amidst all the uncertainty and confusion, many of us thought it would all be temporary. Unfortunately, many of us were all too wrong.
COVID-19 is still here, and it’s still impacting the day-to-day lives of people around the globe.
As of early January 2022, there have been more than 338 million total cases of COVID-19 — over 30 million of which have been in the past 28 days.
Source: Johns Hopkins University & Medicine
While continued cases and even surges are undoubtedly frustrating, they’re not surprising. Thanks to mutations and variants, COVID-19 is annoyingly committed to sticking around — and it’s done a fairly good job so far.
But what exactly are mutations and variants?
Here’s a look at virus mutations and variants — and what experts say is the best way to put an end to COVID-19.
The Basics Of Viruses
Prior to COVID-19, you might not have thought much about viruses, but they’ve always existed. Viruses are responsible for plenty of illnesses and diseases, such as influenza, the common cold, measles, chickenpox/shingles, AIDS, and, of course, COVID-19.
Viruses are incredibly small — smaller than cells even. They’re submicroscopic (you can’t even see them in a microscope) capsules that contain genetic material.
Viruses have one primary job, which is to invade living, normal cells and use them to make more viruses like themselves. Unfortunately, they leave plenty of destruction in their wake. Viruses can damage, change, and kill your cells, making you sick.
Sometimes, your body manages to fight off these viruses right away. In these lucky cases, you may not even feel sick. In other cases, you’re forced to wait out the battle. Meanwhile, since viruses can’t be treated with antibiotics, you’ll need to rely on rest, time, and maybe some over-the-counter medications to keep the worst symptoms at bay.
How Do Viruses Mutate?
Viruses are quite stubborn, and they’ll do almost anything to stay alive — including changing their DNA.
COVID-19 is what’s called an RNA virus, meaning it contains RNA (ribonucleic acid). RNA viruses are known to change, evolve, and mutate. Take the influenza virus — another RNA virus — which mutates frequently. That’s why health experts recommend you get your flu shot every year.
In order to infect other cells, viruses make copies of themselves, kind of like building a virus army. If it can make enough soldiers (or copies) to beat your immune system, it can make you sick.
Every once in a while, an error occurs during that copying process. This is called a mutation.
Usually, mutations are so tiny, they don’t even matter. And in some cases, they even make the virus weaker. However, some mutations can help the virus make more copies and invade more cells.
If these helpful mutations are included during the next copies, they’re passed on and eventually become a part of the virus’ normal makeup.
What’s The Difference Between Mutations And Variants?
Mutations are the act of viruses changing — the result of that can be a variant of that virus.
The virus that causes COVID-19 has spread rapidly and efficiently throughout the world. Because of this, it’s had many chances to replicate, mutate, and form new variants. And this is exactly what it’s done.
All variants are different. With COVID-19, some variants have been more of a concern than others. For instance, the Delta variant, which was classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) in May 2021, not only spreads more easily, but it can cause more severe cases than other variants.
Now, we have the Omicron variant. First reported to the WHO in November 2021, this variant may spread more easily than the Delta variant. However, it also seems to cause less severe illness from COVID-19 so far.
What Happens Next With COVID-19 Variants?
Viruses — including the COVID-19 virus — will continue to mutate as long as they have the opportunity to do so. The more the virus spreads, the more likely it will change and create new variants.
The best way to stop future variants from emerging is to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Fortunately, you know the drill by now. Protecting yourself from COVID-19 variants is no different than protecting yourself from the original strain:
- Get your COVID-19 vaccination and/or booster shot.
- Wear a mask around others if you are unvaccinated, indoors in an area of substantial or high transmission, or on public transportation.
- Stay away from people who are sick.
- Avoid crowds and places that are poorly ventilated.
- Monitor your health daily, checking for symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
- Use COVID-19 tests — including over-the-counter self-tests — to prevent spreading the virus to others.
- Wash your hands and disinfect frequently used surfaces often.
Two years ago, you may have thought COVID-19 was a temporary hindrance. While the future of this pandemic remains uncertain, we have much more at our disposal than we did 2 years ago — vaccines, increased testing, and plenty of knowledge. And for those improvements, we can certainly be thankful.