‘There are thousands of variants of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in the population, and only a handful are ‘variants of concern’.”

A handful of coronavirus variants have become household names during the pandemic, including B.1.1.7, the so-called U.K. variant, and B.1.351, the South African variant. There are many others. Variants arise because viruses naturally mutate when they replicate, and, given the high rates of Covid-19 infection, SARS-CoV-2 has had many opportunities to do so.

Georgetown University virologist Angela Rasmussen, PhD, wants people to know that most coronavirus variants aren’t worth worrying about. As science journalist Tara Haelle reports in Elemental, scientists are monitoring only three variants of concern: the aforementioned two, plus P.1., first identified in Brazil. The rest are just “variants of interest” — those that scientists are just keeping an eye on.

Importantly, none of the mutations seen in the variants “will change how a mask works,” says Rasmussen. “The virus didn’t suddenly acquire the ability to go through walls.”

Read on to learn why some SARS-CoV-2 variants make headlines, while others get dismissed as “scariants”:

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