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What is a COVID-19 variant and what do they mean for the community?

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Posted at 4:21 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-26 00:52:48-05

Before we begin to talk about coronavirus variants and why they pose such a threat, we first must understand how variants are formed.

To learn more, we turned to our ABC15 Health Insider, TGEN epidemiologist Dr. David Engelthaler.

"A virus is essentially like all living things. It evolves in a way that it picks up mutations," says Dr. Engelthaler. "Once it replicates, it has to replicate that entire genome and the genome of the virus is 30,000 letters long... and so it has to replicate all those over and over and it's going to make mistakes. And it does have the ability to correct some of those mistakes, but sometimes, it doesn't. And those mistakes can act just like typos. Most of those are just typos. They don't really change the make-up of the virus at all. They don't cause any harm, don't make it more virulent or anything like that. Every once in a while, you get a typo that actually changes an amino acid which is part of the protein. And then that means it changes just a little and it might make it spread more quickly or more infections in some people."

And that's how variants like the ones from the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil are formed, but these COVID-19 variants are actually nothing new.

"One of the things that people don't realize is that these variants have been happening since the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, when we saw all those cases in Italy that were so devastating early on in the pandemic, that was because a new variant had popped up there and was spreading like wildfire and it took over most of Europe and it came to the Americas. That variant is the one we have mostly seen here in Arizona and throughout pretty much all of the Americas. We've been hit by these variants that can be almost like super-spreader viruses, supercharged, and they move really fast. It is important to know - are we dealing with something that is more slow-moving that we can get our arms around? Or does it really get out of control fast?"

What sort of trends in variants have we been noticing here in Arizona?

"The good news is we haven't really been taken over by the major variants of concern. We do have a few instances of the variant that came out of the U.K. We are seeing a variant that popped up in California a couple of months ago. It is not the dominant strain they see in California, but it's becoming more prevalent here in Arizona, and in recent analysis, we're seeing it in 5-10% of our cases. So we know that's growing and becoming more important here."

And the question on everyone's minds -- how worried should we be about these variants?

"We should be concerned because the virus is likely evolving in a way that it will spread faster. As we get more and more people that have immunity either because they got sick from it or they get vaccinated, finding the next person to infect becomes harder. The virus itself needs to kind of keep up with that, so it becomes more infectious. And so it's going to find the cracks. It's like water. It will find the cracks in the system... the people that are still susceptible and not immune to the virus. So it's important for us to track how much quicker are these strains getting at finding the next person and we all have to keep our guard up still."

Dr. Engelthaler says, eventually, COVID-19 could become less dangerous and maybe act like the common cold where it spreads easily, but the symptoms and side effects are very minor. That's the hope, at least, from medical experts.

In the meantime, TGen has now partnered with the state to better track these variants, perform genetic sequencing, and have a better idea of what's spreading in the community.

The mission of ABC15's Health Insider series is to dive deeper into the things impacting your health and the health of those around you. We're going in-depth with expert advice from people who know it, see it every day in their work and study it. Have a story idea? Contact the team at