75. What is a Covid-19 Variant? (English Vocabulary Lesson)

 In this episode of Thinking in English, I want to talk about Covid variants. What is a variant? Why are there so many variants right now? Are these more dangerous? Do the treatments still work? Let’s discuss these questions in this episode!


(If you can’t see the podcast player CLICK HERE to listen!!)

Vocabulary List

To contract (v) – to catch or become ill with a disease

He contracted malaria while he was travelling

To acquire (v) – to get or buy something

He acquired that company in 2008

Variant (n) – something that is slightly different from other similar things

There are four variants of malaria, all transmitted to humans by mosquitoes

To mutate (v) – to develop new physical characteristics because of a permanent change in genes. These changes can happen naturally or can be produced by the use of chemicals or radiation

These bacteria have mutated into forms that are resistant to drugs

Mutation (n) – A permanent change in a living thing (like in an animal, plant, or bacteria)

These plants carry the mutation for red flowers

Immunity (n) – a situation in which you are protected against disease

The vaccination gives you immunity against the disease for up to six months

Transmissible (adj) – (of diseases) able to passed from one person or animal to another

To start a pandemic, the virus will have to be highly transmissible between humans

Booster (n) – a drug or vaccine given to increase the effect of a previous vaccine and it helps to continue to protect a person from illness

He has his polio booster last week


After almost an entire year of living with the pandemic, it is still not over. In fact, globally, it seems to be worse than ever. Over the last few weeks the number of new Covid cases everyday has reached 800,000 – in fact more cases have been reported in the last two weeks than in the first six months of pandemic! 

As you probably know, many of these cases come from India, which is currently experiencing a massive health crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people have contracted the virus in India, and the healthcare system is struggling to cope. Other countries could have similar situations in the next few months. In the UK, where I live, we have vaccinated millions of people and are now controlling infections. But most countries are not as fortunate – they have problems acquiring and using vaccines to help their people!

You’ve probably heard the word variant used a lot in the media when they are talking about the pandemic. The UK variant, the South African variant, the Brazil variant. These variants are making the situation much more complicated! Some variants have mutations that make it easier to catch Covid, cause more deaths, or make vaccination less effective. Worryingly, the more the virus spreads, and the longer the pandemic continues, the more variants will appear!

The major challenge facing the world now is to vaccinate people as quickly as possible to contain the spread of Covid. If we do not vaccinate people quickly, there is a chance a new variant could appear which could be immune to vaccination!

Clearly, it is incredibly important to know about variants, but it is also confusing. So, I think it might be useful to look at some frequently asked questions about variants.

What is a variant?

A variant is a slightly different version of a virus. Viruses mutate all of the time. As they spread, they make mistakes or errors or slight changes in their DNA. Often, these alterations have no impact on the virus, or are actually bad for the virus. However, sometimes a change in the virus’s DNA can actually make the disease stronger, faster, or harder to fight. A “variant” is a type of virus with some of these mutations. All of the variants of Covid 19 probably started as the same virus, but as it spread around the world and millions of people were infected, different versions of the virus are found in different parts of the world!

Why are there so many variants right now?

One reason is simple: the virus is spreading to more people in more countries. Like I said before, the more infections the more likely there are changes or mutations. And the more changes, the higher the chance a more dangerous variant will appear!

A second reason is that millions of people are now immune to the original Covid 19 virus. People have already been infected or vaccinated, which makes it less likely they will catch Covid. However, it means that variants that are not prevented by vaccines or immunity are becoming stronger!

A third reason is that some countries were, or still are, struggling to have lockdowns or introduce measures to stop the disease. My country is an example. The UK variant was one of the first, and most dangerous, early variants! The UK was very slow to introduce lockdowns and measures like mask wearing, which created opportunities for more mutations!

And a fourth reason, is that we are now looking for variants. It is difficult to find something if you are not looking for it. Now countries and scientists around the world are searching and testing viruses, so of course we know about more variants right now. The scary thing is that there are probably many variants out there that we don’t know about!

Which is the most dangerous Covid-19 variant?

There are three categories of Covid variants. A variant of interest is a variant that could make treatments less effective. A variant of concern is a variant that causes more severe disease, is easier to transfer, or makes treatments significantly less effective. A variant of high consequence is the most severe category, with existing treatments and vaccines being significantly weaker! At the moment, there are seven variants of interest, and three variants of concern identified by the WHO. 

One of the main variants of concern is B.1.1.7… or, as it is better known, the UK variant. It was first found in the UK last year, and is now found all around the world. It seems to be easier to spread, easier to catch, and lead to more people in the hospital. The other two variants of concern were originally found in South Africa and Brazil.

Are Covid-19 variants a major reason behind the crisis in India?

India currently has over 300,000 new cases every day. This is probably a low number, considering not every person is getting tested. There are now shortages of hospital space, medical staff, protective equipment, oxygen, and even funeral spaces. There are many, many reasons for the crisis in India, but one factor is certainly a variant first discovered in India in October 2020. B.1.617. as it is officially known, is a variant that may be easier to catch, and can avoid some of people’s previous immunity! It is also the dominant variant in several Indian states. 

However, there are other reasons too. In February, the Indian government declared that the country had “defeated” Covid-19, and restrictions on public gatherings were lifted, major religious festivals took place, and political rallies continued. Although India produced most of the world’s vaccines, they have struggled to vaccinate people quickly. It may be that the combination of the more transmissible variant, relaxing restrictions too soon, and a low vaccination rate are all causing the Covid-19 devastation in India.

Do treatments still work?

There are now many treatments for Covid-19 that reduce the danger of Covid. However, some specialist treatments may be less effective against some of the variants! I’ll leave a link to some research here if you are interested! On the other hand, most general treatments are not likely to be affected by the variants

Do vaccines still work?

Most of the vaccines being used seem to be effective against most of the different variants. One of the main exceptions, however, is the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine which struggles against the South African variant. The vaccine is still effective against other variants in other parts of the world! Even the best vaccines are not perfect. “Breakthrough” cases are possible with all vaccinations. A “breakthrough” case is where people are still able to get sick after being vaccinated.

It is not clear whether we will need new vaccinations for variants, or perhaps booster vaccines in the future. At the moment, it seems unlikely, but as more variants arise perhaps the situation will change. Part of the challenge is that Covid-19 has only been around for a year, so scientists don’t really know how long immunity will last from a vaccine or from a previous infection. Several of the Covid-19 vaccines can be easily and quickly modified – which could be useful!

Final Thought

On this episode of Thinking in English, I’ve looked at some of the Covid-19 variants. Variants are talked about in the media all of the time, but they can be really confusing. Will variants stop us from returning to normal? Maybe. Or a better answer could be… only if we let them! The more people who are vaccinated, and the quicker they are vaccinated, the better chance at stopping variants. Our goal should be to get enough of the population immune to Covid-19 such that the virus can’t spread easily.

The biggest threat is the spread of Covid-19 in parts of the world that are not vaccinating people yet. And it is unlikely the world will be completely vaccinated anytime soon!  As countries reopen and international travel returns, controlling the spread of Covid-19 in other places will become even more important as the chances of another variant spreading will increase.


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