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New Variants of COVID-19 Fact Sheet  ​

Date created: 4/1/2021; updated 7/15/2021

Background

Variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, continue to be identified both in the United States and across the globe. Viruses are constantly changing, and viral mutations are common. Changes in genetic material occur over time and can lead to the emergence of new variants that may have different characteristics.

We are still learning about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the characteristics of its variants through gene sequencing. The Pennsylvania Department of Health continues to urge Pennsylvanians to follow CDC guidance for wearing a mask where required by law, rule and regulations, including healthcare, local business and workplace guidance. For the protection of themselves and others, individuals who have not yet been vaccinated or are partially vaccinated, are still encouraged to wear a mask when in public. 

What Are the Most Common Variants of Concern in the U.S.?

  • Delta (Indian) variant (B.1.617.2)- First identified in December 2020 in India, the variant was named a variant of concern by the CDC in June 2021. This variant has spread rapidly throughout the globe. The variant has multiple mutations, is more difficult to treat with known methods, and may be the most transmissible variant.  
  • Alpha (UK) variant (B.1.1.7)- First identified in the fall of 2020 in the U.K., and in December 2020 in the United States. This variant has spread rapidly throughout the globe. It is associated with a higher infectivity, and early studies suggest it is associated with increased mortality.  This variant is somewhat more difficult to treat with known methods.
  • Beta (South African) variant (B.1.351)- Emerged independently and was first identified in October 2020. Was identified in the United States in January 2021. This variant is also more infectious and spreads rapidly. This variant is somewhat more difficult to treat with known methods.
  • Gamma (Brazilian/Japanese) variant (P.1)- First identified in early January 2021 in travelers from Brazil and identified in the United States in late January 2021.  This variant has the potential to be more difficult to treat with known methods.

New variants of COVID-19, in addition to the most common, are emerging around the world. Most of the variants can be detected through current diagnostic methods; however, recent reports abroad have indicated some may not be detectable by standard methods—these reports are still being reviewed.

Are There Any Variants of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania?

Yes, Pennsylvania has confirmed cass of the Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma variants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is tracking and reporting on cases of active variants for the nation. You can see the number of reported cases of SARS-CoV-2 variants in Pennsylvania and other states on the CDC COVID-19 Data Tracker

Do the Current COVID-19 Vaccines Protect Against New Variants?

Yes. While vaccine effectiveness is still being assessed, early data indicates that the current COVID-19 vaccines may not prevent someone from getting infected with a variant of COVID-19, but the vaccines provide protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death. New variants are associated with an increased likelihood of spreading from one person to another, and in some cases, an increased likelihood of severe illness and death. Therefore, the presence of variant strains circulating in Pennsylvania should encourage everyone ages 12 and older to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

What Is Genomic Sequencing?

Genomic sequencing allows scientists to identify SARS-CoV-2 and monitor how it changes over time into new variants, understand how these changes affect the characteristics of the virus, and use this information to predict how it might impact health. Sequencing SARS-CoV-2 genomes improve our understanding of which variants are circulating in the U.S., how quickly variants emerge, and which variants are the most important to characterize and track in terms of health.

What Level of Sequencing Is Being Done in Pennsylvania?

At this time, we do not have the infrastructure in place to conduct SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequencing at the Pennsylvania Public Health Laboratory. However, some university-based and commercial laboratories that perform testing for COVID-19 in Pennsylvania are sequencing a subset of their samples to detect COVID-19 variants. Pennsylvania has been working closely with the CDC and has been sending 10-35 specimens biweekly to the CDC since November to study sequencing and detect any potential cases of COVID-19 variants.

What Is Being Done at a National Level To Identify Variants?

In addition to the testing being conducted directly by CDC on specimens sent in by state public health laboratories, CDC is collaborating with commercial laboratories and academic centers to obtain sequencing data being performed by these laboratories. These data are sent to CDC and state public health partners and bolster the number of viruses that are being sequenced and increase our knowledge about which variants are currently circulating.

What Can You Do?

There is still much to learn about SARS-CoV-2 variants. So, all Pennsylvanians must remain vigilant and continue to take steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • Practice good hand washing;
  • Maintain physical distancing;
  • Avoid gatherings;
  • Download COVID Alert PA;
  • Answer the call if a contact tracer reaches out to you; and
  • Get tested if you have symptoms or believe you may have been exposed to COVID-19. 

Resources for More Information

For more information on COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, visit the Department of Health's website at www.health.pa.gov

For more information on variants of COVID-19, visit the CDC's website at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/index.html