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"New Covid-19 Strains: What We Know"

Rolling Stone interviewed Dr. Karin Michels, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology, about the best response to new strains of COVID-19

Monday, February 22, 2021

As expected, the first full winter of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States has been brutal, bringing the total death toll approaching the half-million mark. There are also reasons to be hopeful: The daily average of new Covid cases is now declining in 43 states, and, while off to a shaky start, the rollout of Covid vaccines is underway. But this is SARS-CoV-2 we’re talking about, and the virus doesn’t care about fitting into any tidy little narrative where spring comes and everyone gets vaccinated, ultimately leading to the end of the pandemic and everyone frolicking maskless in a field.

Along with the positive news, there have also been reports confirming cases of infections and deaths caused by new variants of the virus that causes Covid-19. While it’s clearly not a step in the right direction, what exactly does that mean? Will the existing vaccines be effective against these new strains? And should we be doing anything differently to protect ourselves? Here’s what to know, along with a breakdown of some of the more prevalent variants so far.

It is normal for viruses to change

It is common for viruses to mutate over time, in some cases, forming new variants. “That is why we get a flu shot every year — because the flu virus changes and we have a new variant each year,” says Dr. Karin Michels, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “We may have to get the annual Covid shot from now on in addition to the annual flu shot.”