What you need to know about virus variants

Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to sort through all the information we come across. The Delta variant continues to be in the headlines, but other variants are in the news as well. You may be wondering what a variant is, and how common are different types of variants.  

Viruses like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, mutate or change constantly. This mutation is a natural process that results in new variants. You can think of a variant as a stronger, more harmful version of the same virus. Some variants disappear, and others persist. Multiple variants of SARS-CoV-2 have emerged in the United States. 

At this point, the original variant that caused the initial COVID-19 cases in January 2020 is no longer circulating as newer variants have evolved. 

What types of variants are there? 

Some mutations allow the virus to spread more easily or make it resistant to treatments or vaccines. Those variants must be monitored more carefully. Scientists classify certain variants as variants of concern (VOC) or variants of interest (VOI).  

VOCs are variants that have mutations in the viral genome that alter their traits and cause the virus to act differently. For example, a variant of concern may cause more severe disease, spread more easily between humans, require different treatments or change the effectiveness of current vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) are closely monitoring VOCs. 

VOIs are variants that have mutations that have the potential to affect disease severity or spread, or the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments. VOIs are also monitored by CDC and OHA. 

How data is being collected and variants tracked 

When you get tested for COVID-19, you aren’t getting tested for a specific variant. There is no specific test for the Delta variant, or for other variants. All COVID-19 tests can detect all variants, but they will not tell you which variant you have.  

Laboratories in Oregon perform sequencing on a subset of positive PCR tests, looking for the specific mutations that appear in the Delta variant. Sequencing is a process in which scientists map the entire DNA makeup of a virus. This allows them to determine which variants are circulating in a certain area and how prevalent they are.  

Variants in Oregon 

Currently the primary variant that is circulating is the Delta variant. The Delta variant causes more infections and spreads faster than earlier forms of SARS-CoV-2. It is more than twice as infectious as previous variants we’ve seen in Oregon.  

During the week of August 22, this variant made up over 95% of COVID-19 infections in the state. You can see the most recent six weeks of data in the chart below: 

The other variants of concern that the CDC is tracking include the Alpha, Beta and Gamma variants, but they are not being seen in Oregon currently.  

Some people have expressed concern about the Mu (B.1.621) variant. Currently, this variant has not been named a variant of concern or interest by the CDC. We have seen very few infections with the Mu variant in the United States but will continue to monitor it closely  

If you have COVID-19, is it important to know which variant you have? 

No. Most variants cause similar COVID-19 symptoms. The treatments for the illness remain the same regardless of which variant a person has.  

If you’re in Oregon and you test positive for SARS-CoV-2, it’s very likely that you have the Delta variant, but it’s not important for you to know what variant you have.  

What do you need to know about the Delta variant? 

  • The Delta variant is more contagious than previous variants that have been identified in Oregon.  
  • There is some evidence that the Delta variant might cause more severe illness than previous variants in unvaccinated people 
  • Unvaccinated people are at the greatest risk. They are much more likely to get infected and transmit the virus to others. Most cases in Oregon and nationwide occur in people who are not vaccinated. 
  • Fully vaccinated people with Delta variant breakthrough infections can spread the virus to others. However, vaccinated people who get the Delta variant appear to be infectious for a shorter time than an unvaccinated person.  
  • COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the Delta variant and all other variants seen in in Oregon. They are very effective in protecting against severe illness and death.  

What can you do? 

Get vaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines are effective at keeping people from getting COVID-19, getting very sick, and dying. Vaccination not only protects you, it protects everyone. Reducing the spread of COVID-19 can prevent new, more dangerous variants from taking hold in our communities.  

Wear a mask in indoor public settings and outdoors if you can’t maintain at least six feet of distance from others.  

Maintain at least six feet of physical distance between yourself and people you don’t live with.  

Wash your hands regularly.  

Stay home if you’re sick.  

Watch this video from the CDC about COVID-19 variants for more information: