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Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne have all had recent cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) come out of hotel quarantine and into the community. Governments have been particularly worried about these cases because they have been UK variants of the virus, which is even more contagious than the original virus.
When viruses move from person to person they often change and are no longer exact copies of the original virus. These changes are called mutations and viruses with these mutations are called variants.
These mutations don’t usually change how the virus affects people. However, they can make it easier for the virus to transmit between people and they can make the virus reproduce faster.
There are currently three main COVID-19 variants, each with their own mutations:
The UK variant was first found in the United Kingdom towards the end of 2020. The mutations in this variant make it spread more easily and quickly. So far, it has spread throughout the UK and to at least 70 other countries, including Australia.
Initial studies show that this variant is more infectious than other types of COVID-19. It also may have a higher risk of death, but further research is being done to confirm this.
The South African variant was first found in South Africa in October 2020. Since then, it has been found in more than 30 other countries. It has overtaken other COVID-19 types in South Africa, now accounting for more than 90 per cent of cases there.
Like the UK variant, it's also more infectious than the original COVID-19, but there is nothing to show so far that it is more deadly.
The Brazilian variant was first found in Japan in a group of travellers from Brazil in January 2021. It’s now widespread in the Brazilian state of Amazonas and has been found in countries like South Korea and the United States.
There’s nothing to show so far that this variant makes people sicker, but it has caused a wave of reinfections. This has included reinfections in an area that people thought had reached ‘herd immunity’ in October last year.
(Herd immunity is when so many people in a community have become immune to a disease that it stops the disease from spreading.)
Vaccine developers are testing their vaccines against these variants. Most of the vaccines currently available protect well against the UK variant.
Testing is showing that the vaccines don’t protect as well against the South African variant, but they still provide some protection.
Vaccine manufacturers are also looking into how small changes to their vaccines can help protect against the variants.
Information for this article comes from an article on the Conversation website by virologist Kirsty Short.