What Is the B.1.351 Variant?

What to know about this COVID-19 mutation, also known as the beta variant

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple variants of the virus have developed, including the B.1.351 variant—which was initially discovered in South Africa in December 2020.

Virus Background

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Where B.1.351 Has Spread

The B.1.351 variant, which is also known as the Beta variant, has now spread to at least 115 countries worldwide, including the United States.

Spread in the United States

The B.1.351 variant was initially found in the United States in January 2021, with the first case found in the state of Washington. As of April 21, 2021, there were less than 500 total confirmed cases of the B.1.351 variant in the United States; it has been documented in 36 states.

As of June 15, 2021, the variant accounted for between .1% to 2.6% of cases in states where it's found.

Why Do Viruses Mutate?

It is common for all viruses to mutate. When a virus enters the body, it begins to make copies of itself.

Sometimes during this process, mistakes (mutations) are made in the copies, which can make it easier for the virus to invade the cell. When this same mutation continues to further copy itself, a variant of the virus forms.

Is B.1.351 More Contagious?

The B.1.351 variant is thought to be more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates a 50% increased transmission rate of COVID-19 from the B.1.351 variant.

The infectiousness of a virus is measured by an R number, or the number of people an infected person will give the virus to. For example, if the R is 1, an infected person is likely to give it to one other person; an R of 5 means an infected person is going to transmit it to five other people.

Preventing Transmission

Precautions to prevent the transmission of the B.1.351 variant are the same as for the original COVID-19 virus and should continue to be followed. Precautions if you're unvaccinated include:

  • Stay 6 feet apart from others who don’t live in your household
  • Wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose
  • Practice good hand hygiene by washing hands often or using hand sanitizer  

If you are fully vaccinated, the CDC has released new guidelines that say it is safe to go without a mask and physical distancing in places where it isn't required by federal, state, or local regulations. Regular hand washing is still recommended.

Risk of Reinfection

It is possible that the B.1.351 variant can cause reinfection. Studies have shown that natural immunity from previous COVID-19 infection does not protect well against this variant, but there is limited data to support the risk of reinfection at this time.

Is B.1.351 More Severe?

This is currently being studied, but evidence comparing COVID-19 hospitalization and severity from the original COVID-19 virus versus the B.1.351 variant in South Africa showed that there was an increase in mortality rate in those with the B.1.351 variant.

This was a small study, and further research is needed to confirm these findings, as other studies have not found this variant to cause more severe COVID-19.

Recent studies also uncovered that specific monoclonal antibody treatments may be less effective for treating cases of COVID-19 caused by the B.1.351 variant.

Will Vaccines Work Against B.1.351?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that the B.1.351 variant does cause a decrease in the effectiveness of vaccines.

Regarding the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the studies have had various outcomes on the total reduction of effectiveness, from very little reduction to more substantial reduction. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has shown to be 85% effective at preventing severe COVID-19, which included regions with the B.1.351 variant.

Are Kids More At Risk for B.1.351?

There is little data currently available for the risk of B.1.351 in children. The virus has been documented in at least one child in the United States, however there is no evidence suggesting this virus causes more severe disease in children and does not suggest increased infection among children.

A Word From Verywell

Experts are worried about the spread of the B.1.351 variant of COVID-19 around the world and in the United States. As this variant is more contagious, it has the opportunity to spread quickly.

Following precautions as outlined by the CDC and getting a vaccine when it is available to you—as long as it safe for you to do so—is important to help decrease the spread of this and other variants of COVID-19.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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