Word of the Week: Variant

illustration of scientist looking into microscope - word of the week

Alex Dos Diaz / Verywell

Each week, Verywell explains a term from health, medicine, science, or technology.

How to say itVariant

What it means: Something that is different from the standard or original.

Where it comes from: From Latin, varians, "various or variegated."

An image from November 26, 2021 that shows a graph of currently designated COVID variants of concern being monitored by the WHO.

World Health Organization

Where you might see or hear it: In the context of health and medicine, you've probably recently heard "variant" applied to the COVID-19 virus. It's also commonly used when talking about genetics, often along with the term "mutation."

When talking about COVID or another virus like influenza, a variant applies to a recent version of the virus that is different from the original or any previous versions. The word "strain" is also used—for example, we get yearly flu shots that protect against more than one strain of the influenza virus.

In genetics, you might hear the word variant used to describe when something about a gene that you have is different in a way that might affect your health. For example, some genetic variants increase your risk of getting certain diseases while others might make you less likely to get them.

When you might want to use it: If you're talking with someone about COVID and you bring up new strains of the virus that are circulating, you could say "the new variant"—but that's not very specific and could be confusing. Each variant is given its own name, and referring to them by name is the most effective way to communicate about them and prevent spreading misinformation.

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