Six Things You Should Know about Variants in the COVID-19 Virus

Esther Babady wearing a mask in her lab

Clinical microbiologist Esther Babady is leading MSK’s efforts to test for COVID-19 and to look for new variants of the virus.

You’ve probably heard about new genetic mutations of the virus that causes COVID-19. Our experts are paying careful attention to all the developments and are directly involved in research on the variants. Here are six things to know:

1. Memorial Sloan Kettering has been researching variants for months.

“The good news is that MSK researchers have looked for the UK variant in a selection of patient samples, and preliminary findings have detected no cases at this time,” says Esther Babady, Director of the Clinical Microbiology Service, who led the development of MSK’s own COVID-19 test and who is continuing to lead our testing efforts.

MSK is one of six institutions participating in the New York State Department of Health’s initiative to look for new variants, called Enhanced COVID New York Surveillance (ECONYS). MSK researchers have the capability and technology to analyze the complete DNA sequences of virus samples. This analysis is called whole genome sequencing, and it requires a much higher level of expertise than running a regular COVID-19 test. It’s also much more time-consuming.

Even before variants made news, we were already studying them. Our investigators will continue to stay on top of the emergence of new mutations.

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2. It’s not surprising that the virus that causes COVID-19 is developing new variants.

When scientists find variants, that means the virus is changing as it moves through the population. It’s completely normal and expected for viruses to do this. In fact, it’s something that public health experts and researchers have been watching for since the early days of the pandemic.

Receiving the most attention are the UK, South Africa, and Brazil variants. But they are not the only ones that have been found, or even the most common. Scientists have known about other variants since the spring of 2020. Additional mutations are expected to be identified.

Some mutations enable the virus to spread more easily. Both the UK and South Africa variants appear to be more contagious than the original strain.

Scientists are also watching out for variants that may make the illness more dangerous or more resistant to treatment and vaccines. In recent interviews, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that preliminary data suggest that infections with the UK variant may be more serious. The same may be true with the South Africa variant, but more research is needed.

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3. Studies suggest that current vaccines will continue to work on other variants of the virus.

Preliminary research indicates that the vaccines are effective against emerging COVID-19 variants.

It’s possible the virus could eventually develop enough mutations that the current vaccines will be less effective. This is why every year there are new flu vaccines, adapted to strains of the influenza virus circulating at a particular time. We do not expect this virus to change as quickly as the flu viruses. But when it does change, the new mRNA technology used to make the two COVID-19 vaccines offers an important advantage: it can be adapted quickly to new strains of the virus.

Because the vaccines are extremely effective, they could still offer substantial protection, even if they don’t work as well against a new variant.

The faster people are vaccinated, the less chance the virus will have to develop a new mutation. This is why it’s so important for everyone to schedule an appointment as soon as they’re informed they are eligible.

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4. Some COVID-19 treatments may be less effective against certain variants.

Early studies have suggested that people infected with certain variants do not respond as well to treatments made from monoclonal antibodies, which help the immune system fight the virus. These drugs are being used for people who are at high risk and are in the early stages of COVID-19.

It’s possible that variants could also explain why some people get sick again after recovering from COVID-19. “We wanted to know whether people who get reinfected are getting infected with the same strain or a different strain,” says Mini Kamboj, Chief Medical Epidemiologist. “This is an important research question that has implications for how we control infections.”

A team of researchers including Dr. Kamboj, Dr. Babady, and MSK computational oncologist Benjamin Greenbaum is continuing to perform detailed analysis of COVID-19 strains using whole genomic testing to answer these questions. This information will help develop new monoclonal antibody treatments for more strains of the virus.

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5. Experts believe the current tests will still detect the virus, even if it has a variant.

Memorial Sloan Kettering uses six different tests to look for COVID-19 in our patients and staff. One was developed here in our Department of Microbiology, and the other five are commercial tests sold by companies.

All currently known variants will be detected by the tests used at MSK. These tests look for either two or three different genes that are unique to the virus that causes COVID-19. Even if a mutation has altered one gene, the other genes can act as a backup to indicate someone has COVID-19.

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6. These new variants make it even more important to protect yourself.

We want to stay ahead of genetic mutations that could make this pandemic even worse. The more the virus circulates through people, the more opportunities it has to mutate. The safety measures we have followed for months will always be effective no matter how much the virus changes. If you are offered the vaccine, take it. Be vigilant about wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing your hands — even after you’re vaccinated. We are in a race against time.

April 15, 2021

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