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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

COVID-19 Vaccines

Information and evidence about COVID-19 vaccine efficacy and safety

New Variants

Understanding Variants

If you think about a virus like a tree growing and branching out; each branch on the tree is slightly different than the others. By comparing the branches, scientists can label them according to the differences. These small differences, or variants, have been studied and identified since the beginning of the pandemic.

Some variations allow the virus to spread more easily or make it resistant to treatments or vaccines. Those variants must be monitored more carefully.

As the virus spreads, it has new opportunities to change and may become more difficult to stop. These changes can be monitored by comparing differences in physical traits (such as resistance to treatment) or changes in genetic code (mutations) from one variant to another.

Delta Variant: What We Know About the Science

  • The Delta variant is more contagious: The Delta variant is highly contagious, nearly twice as contagious as previous variants.
  • Some data suggest the Delta variant might cause more severe illness than previous strains in unvaccinated persons. In two different studies from Canada and Scotland, patients infected with the Delta variant were more likely to be hospitalized than patients infected with Alpha or the original virus strains.
  • Unvaccinated people remain the greatest concern: Although breakthrough infections happen much less often than infections in unvaccinated people, individuals infected with the Delta variant, including fully vaccinated people with symptomatic breakthrough infections, can transmit it to others. CDC is continuing to assess data on whether fully vaccinated people with asymptomatic breakthrough infections can transmit. However, the greatest risk of transmission is among unvaccinated people who are much more likely to contract, and therefore transmit the virus.
  • Fully vaccinated people with Delta variant breakthrough infections can spread the virus to others. However, vaccinated people appear to be infectious for a shorter period: Previous variants typically produced less virus in the body of infected fully vaccinated people (breakthrough infections) than in unvaccinated people. In contrast, the Delta variant seems to produce the same high amount of virus in both unvaccinated and fully vaccinated people. However, like other variants, the amount of virus produced by Delta breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people also goes down faster than infections in unvaccinated people. This means fully vaccinated people are likely infectious for less time than unvaccinated people.
  • The COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the United States are highly effective at preventing severe disease and death, including against the Delta variant. But they are not 100% effective and some fully vaccinated people will become infected (called a breakthrough infection) and experience illness. For such people, the vaccine still provides them strong protection against serious illness and death.

Slow the Spread