Explainer: The new Covid strains - what we know so far

Owen Breslin

With Covid-19 cases hitting an all-time high in Ireland since Christmas, much has been made of mutations to the virus with many blaming the new strains for the upsurge in cases.

What are the New Strains of Covid?

The so-called South African and UK strains are mutations of the SARS Covid-19 virus. Mutations happen all the time in viruses as they replicate. In a form of natural selection, the stronger virus cells will spread and survive while the weaker ones will die out.

The newer strains or evolutions of the Covid-19 virus have seen changes to the spike proteins on the surface of the virus cells that seem to make them more effective at invading healthy cells. One expert described it as the new strain is more ‘sticky’ than the original.

What does this mean?

While experts are still trying to learn about the original Covid-19 virus, as well as the new variants. It would seem that the newer stains are more infectious. That is, they spread more easily from person to person. There is also evidence that they replicate more quickly in a new host – there are reports of a higher ‘viral load’ in test swabs simply meaning there are more infected cells on the swab than in previous tests.

Is the new strain more dangerous?

So far it seems that the actual symptoms and severity of the infections are no different in the newer strains. The mutations only appear to affect the spread of the virus and its ease of transmission.

Will the vaccine still work?

Again, it is too early to say, the vaccines work by attacking the surface of the covid cell, making it harder for them to infect healthy cells. It is hoped that the vaccines available will still be affective against the new strains but there may be a need to adjust the vaccines in the future make sure they offer greater protection.

How do I protect myself and others?

Keep your distance. The advice from doctors and health officials remains the same. Reduce your interactions with others. The fewer people you come into contact with, the less chance you have of catching COVID and of passing it on to your loved ones.

Hand hygiene is still the main line of defense. Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly with soap and hot water and use hand sanitizer if you’re out of your home.

Cover your mouth and nose if you’re coughing or sneezing.

Avoid touching your face.

Wear a mask – although a mask may not protect you from the virus, it will reduce the risk of you passing on the virus to others if you are infected. Be sure to sanitize your hands before affixing your mask and after removing it.

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