COVID-19 Variants

Variants are a common occurrence in viruses. They are constantly changing through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Most of the SARS-CoV-2 virus mutations don't impact us. Those that do are called Variants of Concern.

Statewide COVID-19 variant proportions for the last 12 weeks can be found on the Respiratory Illness Data Dashboard.

Because viruses mutate when they are transmitted from one person to another, the best way to combat mutations is to stop transmission.

Variants of Concern

There are several variations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified the strains below as Variants of Concern due to evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (increased hospitalizations or deaths), significant reduction in the effectiveness of antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.

Current Variants of Concern in the United States that are being closely monitored and characterized by federal agencies and the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) are included in the table below. The table will be updated when a new Variant of Concern is identified.

Updated: May 13, 2022

Variants of Concern WHO Label First Detected in World First Detected in Washington State
B.1.1.529 and BA lineages Omicron South Africa, November 2021 December 2021


  • Omicron: The Omicron (B.1.1.529 and BA lineages) variant was first identified in the U.S. on December 1, 2021, in California and confirmed in Washington state December 4, 2021. Omicron spreads more easily than other variants and is currently the predominant strain in Washington State. Studies are ongoing to determine the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutic treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies and oral antivirals, against Omicron. From the initial information available, it appears that most monoclonal antibodies will no longer be effective against Omicron, though sotrovimab appears to be effective against Omicron. Initial results also indicate that vaccines may be less effective at preventing infection with the Omicron variant, but still offer substantial protection against severe illness. Receiving a booster dose also appears to improve vaccine effectiveness against Omicron. Initial findings indicate a lower risk of hospitalization, but studies are ongoing. The recent emergence of the Omicron variant further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and boosters.

Variants Being Monitored

A Variant Being Monitored is a strain that has developed specific genetic markers associated with changes that reduce the effectiveness of antibodies generated against previous infection or vaccination, reduce efficacy of treatments, or increase transmission or disease severity. Variants Being Monitored are circulating at low levels in the United States and do not pose a significant and imminent risk to public health.

Variants Being Monitored have been observed or demonstrated the potential to decrease the effectiveness of approved or authorized vaccines or therapies – or have been associated with more severe disease or higher transmission, but no longer pose an immediate or significant risk to public health.

Scientists are conducting enhanced sequence surveillance and epidemiological investigations to assess how easily the variants spreads to others, the severity of disease, the risk of reinfection, and whether current vaccines offer protection.

Current Variants Being Monitored in the U.S. are listed in the table below. The table will be updated when a new Variant Being Monitored is identified.

Updated: May 13, 2022

Variants Being Monitored WHO Label First Detected in World
B.1.1.7 Alpha United Kingdom, September 2020
B.1.351 Beta South Africa, December 2020
P.1 Gamma Brazil, April 2020
B.1.525 Eta United Kingdom/Nigeria, December 2020
B.1.526 Iota New York, November 2020
B.1.427/429 Epsilon California, December 2020
B.1.617.1 Kappa India, December 2020
B.1.617.3 N/A India, December 2020
B.1.621 Mu Columbia, January 2021
P.2 Zeta Brazil, April 2020
B.1.617.2 and AY lineages Delta India, September 2020

What You Can Do

The detection of these COVID-19 variants in our state reminds us that this pandemic is not over. Now that these variants have been found, it is critical to layer all the prevention measures to protect Washingtonians against COVID-19.

Because COVID-19 variants may spread more easily, it is vital that we all follow these guidelines:

  • The best protection is to get vaccinated.
  • Wear a well-made, well-fitting face mask in public indoor settings and with people from outside your household.
  • Keep gatherings outside whenever possible, wearing a mask at large outdoor events with over 500 people.
  • Avoid any social gatherings indoors, but if participating, wear a mask and ensure windows and doors are open to maximize ventilation.
  • Wear a mask while in the car with other people, including with family who do not live in your household.
  • Wash your hands often, don't touch your face, and carry hand sanitizer for use when water and soap are not available.
  • Stay home if you are sick or if you have been exposed to COVID-19.
  • Get tested for COVID-19 if you have symptoms or were exposed to someone who tested positive.

Frequently Asked Questions About Variants

What are virus mutations/variants?

Viruses constantly mutate as they are transmitted. Slowing transmission slows the mutations. Scientists monitor these changes to understand how they may affect how the virus spreads and how it affects people. Variants are mutated versions of the virus. Some variants disappear and some keep showing up. Some are more concerning than others. Variants Being Monitored, Variants of Concern and Variants of Interest are determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How are variants found?

The presence of COVID-19 variants is identified using genome sequencing. Multiple laboratories across the U.S. and Washington state conduct these tests. However, not every COVID-19 specimen is tested. Only a sample of specimens are selected for sequencing to track the spread of variants. 

Are these variants more deadly?

These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on health care resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.

However, current vaccines are effective in reducing the severity of infections and the risk of hospitalization. More studies are being conducted worldwide. 

How will I know if I have a variant?

Due to federal regulations, a person who tests positive for COVID-19 is not notified of the variant they acquired. However, even if they were, advice and patient care is the same as anyone who tests positive for COVID-19. If you test positive for COVID-19, answer the call when public health contacts you and follow their advice to protect yourself and those around you.

Are there other variants?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks the number of cases of Variants of Concern in the U.S. The CDC is tracking these other variants and if they become a Variant of Concern, they will begin reporting on them. If and when they do, so will the Washington State Department of Health.

Will the vaccine work against these variants?

Vaccines provide strong protection against hospitalization and death for all known variants. Initial studies show evidence that vaccines are somewhat less effective at preventing mild illness from some variants. If you get a vaccine that requires a two-dose series, getting both doses has been shown to be especially important for being fully protected against variants.