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Coronavirus (COVID-19): What Are Variants?

Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolved, we heard about “variants” of the virus that were different from the original one that started the pandemic. Here are the basics on variants.

What Is a Variant?

When viruses spread, they make copies of themselves. As they do, they often mutate, or change, a little bit. A copy that is different from the original virus is called a variant. Sometimes variants don’t seem that different from the original virus. Others may have clear differences.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has gone through this type of changing process many times during the pandemic. Each time a new coronavirus variant emerges, the World Health Organization (WHO) gives it a name based on a letter from the Greek alphabet. Variants of note include alpha, delta, and omicron.

How Can Variants Differ From the Original Virus?

Variants can differ from the original virus based on:

  • how contagious they are
  • how sick they make people
  • how they respond to vaccines and medicines
  • whether people can get infected with the virus more than once

What Can Protect People From These Variants?

In general, the steps that experts have recommended to protect us from the original virus also can work to stop the spread of other variants.

It is still very important to keep doing the things that are in our control, such as:

What Else Should I Know?

Scientists are working on a new updated vaccine that can protect against more recent variants. It will likely be ready for use by the fall of 2023.

Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: August 2023