Strains of SARS-CoV-2 causing COVID-19
Updated: May 11, 2021
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SARS-CoV-2 Variant Strains
- SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is constantly changing – like all viruses.
- Genetic variations occur over time and can lead to the emergence of new variants – some may be more transmissible, deadly, or resistent to current vaccines.
- Multiple SARS-CoV-2 variants are circulating globally. Several new variants emerged in the fall of 2020 and are described below.
- Genes in the SARS-CoV-2 genome are shown in Figure 1.
Emerging Strains Across the Globe
SARS-CoV-2 Variants in the United States
United Kingdom (UK) variant – B.1.1.7
- This SARS-CoV-2 variant – also known as 20I/501Y.V1 Variant of Concern [VOC] 202012/01 – emerged in the UK during September 2020.
- Variant has a mutation in the receptor binding domain (RBD) of the spike protein at position 501, where the amino acid asparagine (N) has been replaced with tyrosine (Y). The shorthand for this mutation is N501Y. This variant also has several other mutations including a 69/70 deletion and mutation in the P681H region.
- Detected in numerous countries, including the United States (US) at the end of December 2020.
- Variant is associated with increased transmissibility (i.e., more efficient and rapid transmission).
- In January 2021, UK scientists reported evidence that suggests the B.1.1.7 variant may be associated with an increased risk of death compared with other variants.,
- Early reports found no evidence to suggest that the variant has any impact on the severity of disease or vaccine efficacy.,,
South Africa variant – B.1.351
- This SARS-CoV-2 variant – also known as 20H/501Y.V2 – shares some mutations with B.1.1.7 but emerged independently in October 2020 in South Africa.
- Variant has multiple mutations in the spike protein, including K417N, E484K, N501Y. Unlike the B.1.1.7 lineage detected in the UK, this variant does not contain the deletion at 69/70.
- Detected in multiple countries outside of South Africa, including Zambia in late December 2020 and the US at the end of January 2021.
- Currently there is no evidence to suggest that this variant has any impact on disease severity.
- However, preliminary studies of current vaccines suggest they may be less effective against this strain.
- Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has been shown to be only 22% effective against mild-moderate COVID-19 caused by this strain. For this reason, South Africa has discontinued use of this vaccine.
- mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) have been shown to induce significant neutralizing antibodies against B.1.351, but clinical efficacy is yet to be determined.
Brazil variant – P.1
- This SARS-CoV-2 variant was first was identified in four travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at Haneda airport outside Tokyo, Japan.
- Variant has 17 unique mutations, including three in the receptor binding domain of the spike protein.
- Variant mutations may affect its transmissibility and antigenic profile.
- A recent study reported on a cluster of cases in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon region, in which the P.1 variant was identified in 42% of the specimens sequenced from late December. In this region, it is estimated that approximately 75% of the population had been infected with SARS-CoV2 as of October 2020. However, since mid-December the region has observed a surge in cases. The emergence of this variant raises concerns of a potential increase in transmissibility or propensity for SARS-CoV-2 re-infection of individuals.
- Detected in the US at the end of January 2021.
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