On Saturday, Jan. 23, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke on the new COVID-19 variant that originated in the United Kingdom in a news conference. Although British public health officials hadn’t yet made a definitive determination about whether the U.K.-based variant is more deadly than its original counterpart, Johnson warned reporters that the new variant appears to be “spreading more quickly” and that it “may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.”

Understanding COVID-19 Variants

Over time, organisms adapt to changes in their environments by pushing advantageous characteristics to offspring through their genes. Although viruses aren’t technically living organisms, viruses also evolve.

In some cases, substantial changes don’t need very long to develop. One prime example is how the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, has morphed into at least three distinct variations. One of these variants originated from the United Kingdom.

Exploring What We Know About the U.K.-Based Variant

The U.K.-based SARS-CoV-2 strain is scientifically known as B.1.1.7. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this variant has an easier time spreading than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. As Prime Minister Johnson noted, it also spreads faster than its predecessor.

In contrast to Johnson, the CDC doesn’t currently support evidence that variant B.1.1.7 is more likely to cause fatality.

SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.7 dates back to Sept. 2020. Since its inception, researchers have detected it in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere. Currently, B.1.1.7 is most prevalent in southeast England.

The Two Other Emerging Variants

The South African SARS-CoV-2 variant is known as 1.351. Developed on its own, it was first detected in Oct. 2020. So far, no 1.351 cases have made their way to the United States.

SARS-CoV-2 variant P.1, the Brazilian strain, is the newest mutation of the novel coronavirus. Initially spotted in Japan among a group of travelers hailing from Brazil, P.1 also hasn’t been detected in the U.S. yet.