The coronavirus variants: What you need to know


Updated 11/10/21

Viruses, including the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, mutate continuously as part of their life cycle. These mutated viruses are often referred to as viral variants. When mutations change a virus in ways that may have more of an impact on human health (e.g., cause more severe disease, spread more easily between humans, changes the effectiveness of current vaccines), it is considered a “variant of concern.” There are currently five variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus considered variants of concern and being tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC);

Three variants of concern have been detected locally (B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1). The variant, B.1.1.7, first identified in the United Kingdom, was detected in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, and also at the University of Washington. The B.1.1.7 variant may be up to 50% more contagious than the original strain. Two additional variants, B.1.351, first identified in South Africa, and P.1, first identified in Brazil, have also been detected in King County.

What can I do to prevent the spread of the variants?

The variants spread the same way other coronaviruses spread; they are just better at it. Strictly following prevention measures is the best way to slow the spread of all variants of the virus that causes COVID-19:

Will a double facemask protect me from variant strains?

Wearing a well-fitting face covering with at least two layers of tightly-woven material can block upwards of 80% of exhaled respiratory particles if worn snugly against the face while fully covering both your nose and mouth. It can also help prevent inhalation of respiratory particles. Adding a second (i.e., double) facemask may provide additional filtration, but is not necessary and should be avoided if it does not allow the wearer to breathe easily.

Your face covering should be snug fitting and without gaps. If your glasses are fogging up, you need a better fit. Wearing two masks, with the tighter-fitting mask on top, is one way to add layers and help create a snug fit.

Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for more information about wearing facemasks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Will the vaccines work against the variants?

While studies to date suggest that current FDA authorized COVID-19 vaccines are protective against B.1.1.7, protection against the B.1.351, P.1 and other variants of concern is not fully understood and may be lower for some vaccines.

The UW Medicine COVID-19 Vaccines webpage answers frequently asked questions, including whether the vaccines will be effective against the new variants.

Remember that all COVID-19 prevention measures should continue to be followed regardless of your vaccination statues. This includes distancing from others, wearing a mask, and staying home and getting testing if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. The more we limit transmission from person to person, the more we do to limit the opportunity for the virus to mutate.  

Where can I find more information about variants?