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As cases of COVID-19 variants occur across the country — and world — here’s what you need to know.

News of COVID-19 virus mutations has been popping up in headlines and reports telling us that the changes make the virus more contagious. But is this something to worry about — and will it make the vaccine less effective? Geisinger infectious diseases specialist Dr. Mark Shelly explains.

Why is the COVID-19 virus mutating?

It’s important to understand that all viruses mutate. In fact, it’s not uncommon to have multiple strains of the same virus at the same time spreading, like what we’re seeing with COVID-19 variants.

“The influenza virus is a perfect example of this,” says Dr. Shelly. “The flu virus mutates each year and scientists have been studying how it mutates, which helps give us an understanding of how the coronavirus is currently mutating.”

Most mutations are harmless, but some can evolve into a virus that is more contagious, for example. That’s what we’re seeing with COVID-19 variants now.

These COVID-19 variants may be more likely to evade the body’s defenses, and they’re more likely to show up in people with partial immunity. “We’ll be watching closely for variants in early reinfection, and in any infections that are discovered after vaccination,” says Dr. Shelly. “But it’s important to remember that, while some mutations are more contagious, it doesn’t mean that they’re more deadly.”

However, just because the virus variants don’t appear to cause more severe disease doesn’t mean we should ignore them entirely. “There is still a lot to learn about the new variants,” says Dr. Shelly, “and I cannot stress enough the importance of practicing masking, distancing and avoiding group gatherings.” If it spreads more easily, it’s time to double down on the tools we know will slow the spread.

Will the vaccine work against COVID-19 mutations?

Right now, there’s no strong evidence suggesting that COVID-19 variants are resistant to the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s been suggested that current vaccines can offer protection against some variants, and more studies are underway.

If you’re considering getting the vaccine, these variants underscore why it’s a good idea. Especially for those with preexisting conditions including cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and Type 2 diabetes.

However, “remember that getting the vaccine isn’t an excuse to stop practicing precautions of masking and social distancing,” says Dr. Shelly. “Until COVID-19 cases are rare, keep practicing these measures to help slow the spread of the virus and its mutations.”

How are variants diagnosed and treated?

Today, we can detect common viral variants. And while strain identification is important, it doesn’t impact how we diagnose or treat those with COVID-19.

Regardless of the presence of variants, we still encourage people to get the vaccine as it becomes available to them. “As we continue to roll out the vaccine to more people, the more chance we have to get ahead of variants,” says Dr. Shelly. “The less virus there is circulating through our communities, the less chance it has to mutate.”

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Meet Mark Shelly, MD

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COVID-19 updates: Visit Geisinger's Coronavirus Resource Center for the latest information and helpful resources.