One year after scientists first identified the new coronavirus, several variations of the virus that appear to be more infectious are causing global alarm. Though the new strains are not thought to be more deadly, their spread raises the possibility of overloading already strained health-care systems. Now, countries’ vaccine campaigns are up against the increasingly fast transmission of COVID-19.
What are COVID-19 variants?
Over time, viruses undergo mutations. In the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists around the globe have documented thousands of mutated versions of the coronavirus, called variants or strains. Several of these variants—in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Nigeria—are being closely monitored by health experts, including at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What risks do they pose?
Scientists are particularly concerned about the UK and South African variants because they seem to spread more easily than the original virus. The CDC notes that there is no evidence that they cause more severe illness or increased risk of death. Yet, the transmission of a more infectious variant could spur exponential growth in the number of COVID-19 cases, a dangerous scenario given the challenges some countries have faced starting vaccine distribution.
Such rapid growth in cases could, in turn, lead to more fatalities: with an increase in hospitalizations, health-care systems could become overwhelmed and consequently unable to care for large numbers of people with COVID-19 infections. In many parts of the United States, which is experiencing the world’s most extensive outbreak, intensive care units were already near capacity at the end of 2020. Hospital staff have said they will not be able to maintain high standards of care for patients.