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What to know about COVID-19 variants

Angie Leventis Lourgos
Chicago Tribune

So far, roughly 213 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the United States, with more than a quarter of the nation fully vaccinated. The virus is still spreading, with cases rising in many parts of the country.

Each time the virus transmits is another opportunity for a mutation to occur, potentially creating a new — and possibly more problematic — strain of the virus.

The Biden administration recently allocated $1.7 billion to fight these troubling variants. Earlier this month, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago launched an advanced molecular lab dedicated to monitoring and mitigating new strains, in the hopes of preventing outbreaks and further spread.

Here are four things to know about COVID-19 variants:

1. What is a variant? Viruses constantly change through mutation as a natural part of evolution, and variants are expected over time. When the virus infects our cells, it replicates, and sometimes slight changes are made in those copies, causing mutations.

Leonor Soberanis, an employee at Ferrara Candy, receives her Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Trevon Harvy on April 15, 2021, in Chicago.

2. Why are variants concerning? Most of those mutations don’t matter much — either they don’t give the virus any new advantage or they disadvantage the virus, so they disappear quickly. But occasionally a variant emerges that’s better adapted to help the virus survive, perhaps by making it more infectious or more easily transmissible. Those are referred to as variants of concern.

“These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19,” the state health department website states. “An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on health care resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.”

3. If you get sick, can you tell if you have the original COVID-19 strain or a variant? As of yet, a patient or clinician can’t diagnose a variant case of COVID-19 based on symptoms or how the illness presents. Samples of the virus must be tested to determine whether the infection was caused by the original version or a new strain.

4. How can variants be prevented or mitigated? Medical experts say the same public health tools used to fight the original virus strain — masking, social distancing and vaccinating — can decrease transmission of variants of concern and help prevent new ones from emerging.