What is a variant: Breaking down the basics of COVID-19

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BECKLEY, WV (WVNS) — COVID-19 cases across the country are on the rise. The Delta variant is twice as contagious as the original coronavirus and can cause more severe illness. But how did it get here?

Unlike bacteria, viruses can’t organically reproduce so when they invade a cell and infect someone, they start to make copies.

“That process inevitably leads to mutations, variants in the DNA, things that make each copy a little different than the copy it came from,” said Dr. Jon Mitchell, Assistant Professor at WVU Tech.

Variants can lead to different symptoms and rates of transmission. For the most part, Mitchell says most variants won’t be more harmful than the original virus, but in some cases there can be variants of concern.

There are currently four variants of concern in the United States, including the Delta variant.

“Variants of concern are situations where mutations actually help the virus infect people, help it stay in their system longer, help it evade the immune response, help it spread more readily,” Dr. Mitchell said.

With Coronavirus, spike proteins are a key player in how transmissible a variant is. The delta variant has more spike proteins than the Alpha variant, making it easier for the virus to infect a cell.

“For Alpha, it was around, I think, between 40 to 60 percent of those spike proteins were primed on the actual particle to enter cells and for Delta it’s around 80,” said Dr. Sandra Simon, Assistant Professor at WVU Tech.

COVID-19 comes from the same system of viruses as the common cold, but what makes it dangerous and even deadly is that humans were never exposed to the virus before 2019. In order to prevent a severe infection and prevent other variants from popping up, experts said your best defense is to get vaccinated.

“The vaccines are a way to train your body how to fight this thing without having to go into a high level of gear,” Dr. Mitchell said. “This is a big reason why vaccinated people have less severe illness and less severe outcomes if they have a breakthrough infection.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported there are over 500 Delta variant cases in Alabama.

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