Have you heard of the COVID-19 variant? Here’s what you need to know

CBC Kids News • Published 2021-01-05 15:44

It’s like a copy that’s imperfect

People in parts of the U.K. are under lockdown once again after a new variant of COVID-19  began spreading across the country.

According to researchers, the new variant spreads more easily and faster than the original version of the virus, but isn’t more deadly.

Scientists first identified the variant in September 2020, and it’s since spread to places like Canada and the U.S.

“The virus isn’t suddenly able to permeate through masks and do all these weird things that the original virus couldn’t.” - Jason Kindrachuk, researcher and assistant professor

Here’s what you need to know about this.

1/ What’s a virus variant?

When viruses like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, reproduce, they don’t make perfect copies of themselves.

Instead, the copies will have small mistakes, also called mutations.

Jason Kindrachuk, a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, compared it to transcribing a book without spell-check.

Mistakes pop up.

Once scientists identify these mutations, usually after noticing a change in how the virus acts like what was seen in the U.K., they will call the new version a variant.

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2/ Should we be worried about the new coronavirus variant?

So far, scientists have recorded many variants of this virus, including ones in South Africa, Spain and Nigeria.

There is no evidence that any of these variants, including the one found in the U.K., make people more severely ill.

But a report from Public Health England suggests that this variant is better at spreading than the regular strain.

If you have a variant that's able to transmit to 50 percent more people, now you have 50 percent more people that are getting infected and that's going to increase hospitalizations and severe diseases and fatalities. -Jason Kindachuk

3/ Will the vaccine work on it?

“That’s the million dollar question,” said Kindrachuk.

Since this new variant only showed up recently, there is currently no data on how well any of the vaccines protect against it.

In the meantime, scientists are looking at other research to make predictions.

Research into how existing vaccines work against the U.K. variant is ongoing.

But so far, it’s looking like vaccines will still work.

The scientific consensus is that “we should still have really good protection if not full protection,” said Kindrachuk.

4/ Do we need to be more careful?

Kindrachuk says he doesn't think we need to assemble the Avengers or fire up the Bat signal since we're not dealing with a virus that has gained superpowers.

“The virus isn’t suddenly able to permeate through masks and do all these weird things that the original virus couldn’t,” said Kindrachuk.

So we just need to keep doing what we’re doing: Wear your mask, practice physical distancing, avoid enclosed spaces or big crowds, and wash your hands.

But he said we do need to make sure that we follow those rules “to a tee.”

“If we decide that we’re not going to wear a mask 10 per cent of the day, the virus doesn’t care that we’ve been wearing it 90 per cent of the day,” Kindachuk said.

“It only notices that there is a good opportunity for it to spread from person-to-person that 10 per cent of the time,” he said.

“Viruses are very good at finding cracks in the system.”

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