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Why Are So Many New COVID-19 Variants Being Found At The Moment?


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockJan 14 2021, 15:51 UTC
Scanning electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2

Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph of a cell infected with SARS-CoV-2 particles, isolated from a patient sample, captured at the NIAID Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland. NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Another day, another variant. You’ve no doubt recently heard something about multiple new emerging variants of COVID-19 being identified around the world and perhaps you're wondering where they all suddenly came from. Well, here’s everything you need to know.

The past few months have seen a whole reel of reports speaking about new strains of COVID-19: the UK variant, the South African variant, and the Brazil variant, just to name a few. This week, scientists have also identified two new variants in the US, one known as the “Columbus strain.” 


Mutations are a natural part of the virus life cycle, and SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is no exception. Over the course of the pandemic, there have been thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants that have undergone subtle mutations, most of which are inconsequential or harmless. However, a handful of new variants have shown some potentially worrying mutations. 

But why has there suddenly been an apparent uptick in the number of concerning variants being reported? Like most questions concerning COVID-19, there are few certain answers yet, but it’s likely a reflection of better surveillance, increased apprehension, and potentially new selection pressures.

“There could be a myriad of factors potentially acting in combination,” Dr Lucy van Dorp, Senior Research Fellow at UCL Genetics Institute, told IFLScience. 


“It is an interesting observation that we have multiple concerning variants now emerging at a similar time point. It may be that there are now slightly different selective pressures on the virus than earlier in the pandemic; whether that is some degree of immunity in the population, a mutational pressure on the virus, or perhaps changes in climate - though potentially concerning variants have been detected in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere,” Dr van Dorp added.

The UK variant is thought to be partially responsible for the surging number of cases in the country since there's some evidence it may be more transmissible. Just like the UK variant and the South African variant, the “Columbus strain” variant in Ohio has new mutations that affect the spikes that stud the surface of the virus. This has led to some worries the variant will be more infectious or reduce the efficacy of the vaccine. Fortunately, there’s no evidence any of the variants are more deadly. 

Dr van Dorp added that part of the reason more variants are being flagged up is likely that recent observations are prompting more robust surveillance and monitoring. For one, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US notes their sequence-based strain surveillance has recently been “ramping up” in light of these new emerging variants. 


“There may also be some effect of increased surveillance to detect new variants in light of current observations,” explained Dr van Dorp. “For example, flagging of the 501Y mutation in the B.1.351 lineage (first identified in South Africa) may have contributed to the UK sequencing consortium detecting the B.1.1.7 lineage which also harbors this mutation despite having evolved independently.”

“It is perhaps not a surprise that the B.1.1.7 lineage was detected in the UK given the enormous sequencing efforts in place.”

For more information about COVID-19, check out the IFLScience COVID-19 hub where you can follow the current state of the pandemic, the progress of vaccine development, and further insights into the disease.

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