COVID-19 variants

Updated January 19, 2022

Public health measures such as masking and physical distancing continue to be important tools for preventing the spread of all COVID-19 variants. Vaccines and booster shots remain the best way to reduce your risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19.

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What are variants?

A variant is a new version of a virus that contains changes in the virus's genes. Most changes, or mutations, have little to no impact on the virus' properties. However, some mutations may affect how easily the virus spreads or the severity of the disease it causes. All viruses mutate over time, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

A positive COVID-19 test confirms infection, but it doesn't reveal which SARS-CoV-2 variant caused the infection. Alaska's Public Health Laboratories routinely review positive test results to identify samples that potentially come from a variant. Not every sample can be reviewed, but the specimens that are selected for genetic sequencing represent as many different geographic regions as possible to ensure a representative characterization of variants statewide.

Alaska's Public Health Laboratories continue to monitor for variants of concern and publishes updates:

Types of variants

Scientists who track variants assign the most significant ones to four different classifications. These classifications are based on how easily the variants spread, how severe the symptoms are, how they respond to treatments, and how well vaccines protect against them.

  • Variants being monitored: These variants could potentially spread more easily or cause more severe disease, but they are either no longer detected or are circulating at very low levels.
  • Variants of interest: These variants are predicted to affect ease of spread, testing accuracy, treatment, or immunity from vaccines or prior infection. Evidence could also show that these variants have caused an increase in cases or unique outbreak clusters.
  • Variants of concern: These variants show evidence of increased spread or disease severity, or they show an impact on testing accuracy, treatments, or vaccines.
  • Variants of high consequence: Evidence clearly shows that these variants have caused a significant drop in effectiveness for prevention measures, treatments, tests, or vaccines compared to previous variants.

Current variants of concern

Omicron (B.1.1.529)

This variant was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 24, 2021. On November 26, WHO named the B.1.1.529 variant "Omicron" and classified it as a variant of concern. It is currently the predominant variant in Alaska.

  • Spread: Likely spreads more easily than other variants due to a combination of increased transmissibility and ability to evade immunity from a past infection or vaccination.
  • Severe illness and death: Early data suggests Omicron infections might be less severe than those of other variants.
  • Vaccine: Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness due to infection with the Omicron variant. However, breakthrough infections in people who are vaccinated are likely to occur. Some studies have demonstrated the importance of booster doses in protecting against infection with Omicron, and a lower effectiveness of the primary series of vaccines alone.
  • Treatments: Some outpatient treatments are available for treating COVID-19 in specific at-risk people. Monoclonal antibody treatments could help the immune system respond more effectively to the virus. Antiviral medications that target specific parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can help reduce its spread through the patient’s body. Examples of these medications include the monoclonal antibody product sotrovimab and antiviral drugs Paxlovid, remdesivir, and molnupiravir. It is important to note that the monoclonal antibody products REGEN-COV and bamlanivimab plus etesevimab do not appear to be effective against Omicron infections. Learn more about COVID-19 therapeutics.

Delta (B.1.617.2)

WHO classified Delta as a variant of concern in May 2021.

  • Spread: Spreads more easily than most other variants.
  • Severe illness and death: May cause more severe cases than most other variants.
  • Vaccine: Breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are expected, but vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death. Early evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people who become infected with the Delta variant can spread the virus to others. All FDA-approved or authorized vaccines are effective against severe illness.
  • Treatments: Delta variant infections respond to treatment with FDA-authorized monoclonal antibody treatments such as sotrovimab, REGEN-COV, and bamlanivimab plus etesevimab. Antiviral drugs, such as Paxlovid, remdesivir, and molnupiravir, are also expected to have varying degrees of effectiveness against Delta infections. Learn more about COVID-19 therapeutics.

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