Updated Nov. 4, 2022
COVID-19 and Variants
Variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been a frequent topic in the news lately, but what are they?
As viruses spread from person to person, they can mutate. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is no different. Most mutations are minor and do not change the behavior of the virus. A group of coronaviruses that have the same mutations are what we refer to as variants.
Types of Variants
In some cases, a variant is biologically different enough from the original that it can spread more quickly than other variants or is less responsive to treatment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorizes variants according to four classifications: these classifications are variants being monitored, variants of interest, variants of concern and variants of high consequence.
Variants Being Monitored (VBM)
Variants being monitored include variants that data have shown to be associated with more severe illness or greater transmission, capable of impacting the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines or treatments but are no longer detected or circulating at such low levels in the United States that they no longer present a significant risk to public health.
Variants of interest and variants of concern may be moved to this list if the proportions of national and regional infections associated with them show a consistent downward trend or if evidence suggests they are less of a risk to public health in the United States. An example is the Delta variant, which was prominent in the United States in late summer of 2021. Learn more
Variants of Interest (VOI)
CDC defines variants of interest as having one or more of the following attributes:
- Genetic markers that are expected to affect how they spread, are diagnosed, respond to treatment, and immune escape (an infected person’s immune system may not recognize and respond to the virus)
- Evidence linking them to increased numbers of cases or unique outbreak clusters
- Generally limited in their spread in the United States or other countries.
Variants of Concern (VOC)
CDC defines a variant of concern as a variant that has one or more of the following attributes in addition to the possible attributes of a variant of interest:
- Evidence that they affect diagnostics, treatments and vaccines. For example, they may
- Cause widespread interference with diagnostic testing
- Demonstrate increased resistance to treatments in those who are infected
- Not respond to the antibodies in the body of a person who has been vaccinated or previously infected
- Be more likely to cause severe illness in vaccinated people
- Evidence that they spread more easily
- Evidence that they cause more severe disease
The Omicron variant is currently a variant of concern. Learn more
Variants of High Consequence (VOHC)
CDC defines variants of high consequence as having the following possible attributes in addition to the attributes of a variant of concern:
- Clear evidence showing reduced effectiveness of prevention and treatment measures including the following:
- Diagnostic tests
- Vaccines (causing a disproportionately high number of infections in vaccinated people or less protection from severe disease)
- Authorized therapeutic treatment
- More severe clinical disease and increased hospitalization
None of the SARS-CoV-2 variants are categorized as variants of high consequence at this time. Learn more
CDC continues to monitor variants of concern worldwide. Similarly, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) monitors variants that have been detected in Washington state and publishes a weekly report. See the most recent variant report from DOH for more information.
What Does This Mean for You?
Due to federal regulations, you will not be notified if you test positive for a SARS-CoV-2 variant. Even if you were, you would still follow the same guidance for patient care. Here are a few things that you can do to decrease your risk for infection or infecting others:
- Get vaccinated and stay up to date on all recommended boosters. Getting vaccinated is the best protection from COVID-related hospitalization and death.
- Know when it’s a good idea to wear a well-fitting mask, such as in crowded spaces with poor ventilation.
- Avoid indoor social gatherings—if participating, keep doors and windows open for the best possible ventilation.
- Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available.
- Stay home if you are sick and get tested for COVID-19.
- If you have been exposed to COVID-19, wear a well-fitting mask when around others for 10 days following exposure, and make sure to get tested.
- Get tested if you think you’re sick or if you think you were exposed.
- Sign up for WA Notify.
Learn more about COVID-19 variants
The Omicron Variant
The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa in late November 2021 and continues to spread worldwide.
Like other variants, the Omicron variant includes several different lineages—these are different versions of the same variant that have differences that change how the virus behaves. The original lineage was B.1.1.5269. Currently, multiple lineages are present and circulating in the United States. For the most up-to-date information about the variants present in the United States and the distribution of Omicron variants regionally, see the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker.
The Omicron variant spreads more easily than past variants and data show that the Omicron variant can also cause reinfection. Anyone who is infected with the Omicron variant can spread the virus to others, regardless of vaccination status.
Symptoms and Severity
Omicron tends to cause less severe illness and death than past variants, although it shares many of the same symptoms. An individuals age, health condition and vaccination status affect the symptoms they experience.
Even though it’s possible to become infected after vaccination, getting your vaccine and staying up-to-date on booster doses is the best way to protect yourself from severe illness. The bivalent vaccines, made available in September 2022, were designed to provide protection from the original SARS-CoV-2 virus as well as the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 lineages.
CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) continue to monitor the efficacy of COVID-19 treatments, such as monoclonal antibody treatments against newer variants. Visit the CDC website for the most up-to-date information
Use the Same Protocols to Protect Yourself
Getting vaccinated, getting tested when you do not feel well and before and after situations that carry a higher risk of exposure, and wearing a mask in situations that present a greater risk of exposure are key tools that you can use to protect yourself from infection with the Omicron variant.
More Information and Sources
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Variants of the Virus
Content adapted from materials provided by the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).