COVID-19 variants: What first responders need to know

Learn about the differences between each strain, how transmissible they are, and what they mean for local communities


Since the novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, was identified in December 2019, several notable variants of the virus have been discovered.

Learn what health experts have to say about these new variants and how the newly released COVID-19 vaccines will fare against them.

How many new COVID-19 strains, or variants, have been identified?

Learn what health experts have to say about the COVID-19 variants and how the newly released COVID-19 vaccines will fare against them.
Learn what health experts have to say about the COVID-19 variants and how the newly released COVID-19 vaccines will fare against them. (Photo/Getty Images)

There are four notable variants of the novel coronavirus that have been discovered around the world:

  • 20I/501Y.V1, VOC 202012/01, or B.1.1.7 (originating in the UK)
  • 20H/501Y.V2 or B.1.351 (originating in South Africa)
  • P.1 (originating in Brazil)
  • L452R (originating in Denmark)

How are the new variants different from the strain discovered in Wuhan, China, in December 2019?

The strain originating in the UK emerged in September 2020 and was noted by CDC as having “an unusually large number of mutations.” It’s also considered to be more easily transmitted between people. It has been found in several areas of the United States.

The strain originating in South Africa was found in samples dating back to October 2020, and it is also considered to be more easily transmitted. Health experts are also concerned that this strain could have an impact on the use of antibody treatment therapy.

The strain originating in Brazil was discovered when four travelers from Brazil tested positive during a routine screening at a Tokyo airport. A recent study of cases in the city of Manaus, Brazil, found the P.1 variant in 42% of samples from late December, despite nearly 75% of the city's population already having had COVID-19. The reinfection possibility concerns researchers. The strain is also thought to be more transmissible.

The strain originating in Denmark was discovered in March 2020 and found in a California sample in May. It includes a spike protein mutation, which could interfere with the efficacy of the vaccine.

Where have the new variants been found in the U.S.?

Only two of the four notable variants have been discovered in the U.S., most heavily in California and Florida, but isolated cases have popped up in several other states as well.

The CDC is tracking all variant cases found in the U.S. States colored dark blue have at least 1 confirmed case of a COVID-19 variant. Visit the CDC's website for the latest information on variant cases. 

The CDC is tracking all variant cases found in the U.S. States colored dark blue have at least 1 confirmed case of a COVID-19 variant. 
The CDC is tracking all variant cases found in the U.S. States colored dark blue have at least 1 confirmed case of a COVID-19 variant.  (Photo/CDC)

Are the COVID-19 variants more dangerous?

While notably not considered to be more lethal, a majority of the COVID-19 variants are considered to be more transmissible, and thereby have the ability to infect more people at a faster rate, which could further strain emergency medical resources.

In addition, researchers are considered that the strains originating in Brazil and South Africa could be more resistant to both antibody treatments and the vaccine. Research is still being conducted. 

Are the COVID-19 variants more contagious?

Yes, three of the four variants do have the potential to transmit more easily, and researchers are still studying the fourth.

Can an individual who has already had COVID-19 be reinfected by variant strains?

As for COVID-19 reinfection, the strain originating in Brazil is being studied by researchers, as it’s possible the spike protein mutation found in this variant could elude antibodies gained either through natural infection or from the vaccination.

Similarly, the L452R strain is suspected as possibly having the ability to evade antibodies and more work is being done to test its capabilities.

Will the approved COVID-19 vaccines still work against the new variants?

There is no evidence to suggest the vaccine will not work on the strain originating in the UK.

However, because the strains originating in South Africa, Brazil and Denmark include a spike protein mutation, scientists are conducting tests on several samples to see if the vaccines remain effective.

Read more: Can public safety employers require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

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