Explained: The 3 Major COVID-19 Variants
As billions of people gear up for widespread vaccination against COVID-19, another issue has reared its head. Three major COVID-19 variants have emerged across the globe—and preliminary research suggests these variants may be cause for concern.
But what makes them different from the original strain?
The following visualizations answer some key questions, including when these variants were first discovered, how far they’ve spread worldwide, and most importantly, their potential impact on the population.
Some Context: What is a Variant?
Before diving in, it’s important to understand why viruses mutate in the first place.
To infect someone, a virus takes over a host cell and uses it to replicate itself. But nature isn’t perfect, and sometimes, mistakes are made during the replication process—those mistakes are called mutations.
A virus with one or more mutations is referred to as a variant. Most of the time, variants do not affect a virus’s physical structure, and in those instances, they eventually disappear. However, there are certain cases when a mutation impacts part of a virus’s genetic makeup that does change its behavior.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) a change in behavior can alter:
- Rate of transmission
- Ability to potentially infect someone with natural or vaccine-induced immunity
Preliminary research has detected some of these changes in the three major COVID-19 variants—B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1.
The 3 Major COVID-19 Variants
The three major variants emerged at different times, and in different parts of the world. Here’s an overview of each variant, when they were discovered, and how far they’ve spread so far.
The B.1.1.7 variant was detected in the UK in the fall of 2020. By December 2020, it had spread across the globe, with cases emerging across Europe, North America, and Asia.
Currently, the variant has been reported in roughly 94 countries.
Early research suggests it’s 50% more transmissible than other variants, and potentially 35% more deadly than the standard virus. Luckily, studies suggest that some of the existing vaccines work well against it.
In October 2020, the second major variant was discovered—B.1.351. It was first identified in South Africa, but by end of the year, it had spread to the UK, Switzerland, Australia, and Japan.
There are approximately 48 countries with reported cases, and research suggests several of the existing COVID-19 vaccines may not be as effective against this variant.
The P.1 variant was the last to arrive on the scene.
It was first discovered in January 2021, when Japan reported four cases of the variant, which was found in travelers who had arrived from Brazil.
Approximately 25 countries have reported cases of the P.1 variant, and early research suggests this variant is not only more contagious, but could also have the ability to infect people with natural immunity who had already recovered from the original strain.
Still Early Days
While there have been preliminary studies showing a dip in vaccine effectiveness, some experts emphasize that it’s too early to tell for certain. More data is needed to gain a deeper and more accurate understanding.
In the meantime, experts are emphasizing the importance of following our current public health strategies, which include physical distancing, vaccination, washing your hands, and using masks.
Charted: The Gen Z Unemployment Rate, Compared to Older Generations
COVID-19 has impacted everyone, but one generation is taking it harder than the others. This graphic reveals the Gen Z unemployment rate.
Putting the Gen Z Unemployment Rate in Perspective
There are more than 2 billion people in the Generation Z age range globally. These individuals, born between 1997 and 2009, represent about 30% of the total global population—and it’s predicted that by 2025, Gen Z will make up about 27% of the workforce.
Due to the global pandemic, unemployment has been on the rise across the board—but Gen Z has been hit the hardest. This chart, using data from the OECD, displays the difference between the unemployment rate for Gen Zers and the rate for older generations.
Note: The OECD defines the ‘unemployed’ as people of legal working age who don’t have work, are available to work, and have taken steps to find a job. The final figure is the number of unemployed people as a share of the total labor force.
The Generation Gap: Gen Z Unemployment
Compared to their older working-age counterparts, Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials (Gen Y)—the most recent 2020 data shows that Gen Z has an unemployment rate of nearly 2x more in almost every OECD country.
|Country||Unemployment Rate (Gen Z)||Unemployment Rate (Millennial, Gen X, Boomer)|
|🇨🇿 Czech Republic||8.0%||2.3%|
|🇰🇷 South Korea||10.5%||3.6%|
|🇳🇿 New Zealand||12.4%||3.3%|
|🇬🇧 United Kingdom||13.5%||3.2%|
|🇺🇸 United States||15.1%||7.1%|
Note: For the purposes of this article, we are only considering the Gen Zers of legal working age—those born 1997-2006. The rest—Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials—are those born between 1946–1996.
The timing for the youngest working generation could not be worse. Gen Z is just beginning to graduate college and high school, and are beginning to search for work and careers.
Gen Z is also an age group that is overrepresented in service industries like restaurants and travel–industries that were equally hard hit by the pandemic. In the U.S., for example, around 25% of young people work in the hospitality and leisure sectors. Between February and May 2020 alone, employment in these sectors decreased by 41%.
Countries like Spain are facing some of the biggest headwinds among OECD countries. The country already has a high unemployment rate for those aged 25-74, at 14%. But the unemployment rate for Gen Z is more than double that, at over 38%.
Implications For the Future
While it may be true throughout history that this age group is often less employed than older cohorts, the share of labor held by those aged 15-24 dropped significantly in 2020.
Note: This chart represents the data from G7 countries.
In terms of their future employment prospects, some economists are anticipating what they call ‘scarring’. Due to longer periods of unemployment, Gen Z will miss out on formative years gaining experience and training. This may impact them later in life, as their ability to climb the career ladder will be affected.
Starting out slower can also hit earnings. One study found that long periods of youth unemployment can reduce lifetime income by 2%. Finally, it is also postulated that with the current economic situation, Gen Zers may accept lower paying jobs setting them on a track of comparatively lower earnings over their lifetime.
Overall, there are many future implications associated with the current unemployment rate for Gen Zers. Often getting your foot in the door after college or high school is one of the hardest steps in starting a career. Once you’re in, you gain knowledge, skills, and the oh-so-coveted experience needed to get ahead.
The Kids are Alright?
One positive for Gen Z is that they have been found to be more risk averse and financially conscious than other generations, and were so even prior to COVID-19. Many of them were children during the 2008 Recession and became very cautious as a result.
They are also the first digital generation— the first to grow up without any memory of a time before the internet. Additionally, they have been called the first global generation. This could mean that they pioneer location-independent careers, create innovative revenue streams, and find new ways to define work.
Visualized: Key Events in the COVID-19 Timeline
It’s been a long year since the WHO declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic. This visual looks at key events in the COVID-19 timeline.
Visualized: Key Events in the COVID-19 Timeline
It’s been a long and eventful year since COVID-19 was officially declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020.
The tangible and intangible costs of COVID-19 have been severe. In this visual COVID-19 timeline, we delve into some significant milestones that have occurred around the world.
December 2019-February 2020
Pre-Pandemic COVID-19 Timeline
The origin story actually begins at the turn of the new year, as events began bubbling under the surface in Wuhan, China. The first coronavirus cluster was reported on December 31, 2019, with initial exposures linked to the Huanan Seafood Market.
In the new year, the first coronavirus cases began filtering outside of China, to Thailand and the U.S.—causing the WHO to declare a public health emergency of international concern. As the death toll ticked up to over 200, it was clear that this was no ordinary virus.
All dates in the graphic are based on when events occurred rather than when they were widely reported.
In February 2020, the novel coronavirus was finally named COVID-19. In addition, the Diamond Princess cruise ship was linked to 624 confirmed cases in late February—the highest case cluster outside of China at the time. The ship captured international headlines when it was refused port in a number of countries, casting COVID-19 into the spotlight.
This month also marked a significant turning point. Dr. Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor, had tried to draw global attention to the severity of China’s outbreak before he passed of COVID-19 on February 7, 2020.
If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier I think it would have been a lot better […] There should be more openness and transparency.
—Dr. Li, in a NYT interview a few days before his passing
Italy and Iran then grew significantly as global hotspots of COVID-19. The U.S. reported its first death due to COVID-19—however, it was only discovered in April that there were in fact two prior deaths due to the virus in the country.
On March 11, 2020, WHO made a critical decision. As the virus began to transcend borders and claim thousands of lives, it announced that the COVID-19 outbreak had officially become a deadly global pandemic.
In the year that followed, the virus was relentless in spreading around the world. How have cumulative case counts and death tolls evolved since the beginning?
|Date||Cumulative Cases||Cumulative Deaths|
|February 1, 2020||12,038||259|
|March 1, 2020||88,394||2,996|
|April 1, 2020||958,586||50,535|
|May 1, 2020||3,368,225||242,691|
|June 1, 2020||6,284,173||378,365|
|July 1, 2020||10,675,433||513,479|
|August 1, 2020||17,852,606||681,368|
|September 1, 2020||25,772,515||857,960|
|October 1, 2020||34,326,374||1,024,204|
|November 1, 2020||46,597,718||1,202,376|
|December 1, 2020||64,006,923||1,485,018|
|January 1, 2021||84,054,370||1,835,383|
|February 1, 2021||103,410,000||2,245,069|
|March 1, 2021||114,420,000||2,538,582|
Source: Our World in Data via Johns Hopkins University
Let’s explore key events in the COVID-19 timeline that took place over the course of the past year.
365 Days of the Pandemic
The initial impacts of the pandemic were felt swiftly, and progressively became worse. Within the first three months, the world paid a high human and economic toll.
Whiplash for the World
Following the WHO announcement, numerous sporting events were cancelled, from the NBA and NHL 2019-2020 seasons to the UEFA Euro men’s soccer championship. Even the Tokyo Summer Olympics were postponed for a year.
In late March 2020, the U.S. surpassed China to become the hardest-hit country by COVID-19. In terms of overall case numbers, it remains the global epicenter of the pandemic today, followed by India and Brazil.
The stock market took a severe hit, with a crash rivaling other recessions and significant financial crises. For example, here’s how the Dow Jones Index Average dropped in March alone:
|Event||Date||Dow Jones Industrial Average (% change)|
|Black Monday I||March 9, 2020||-7.79%|
|Black Thursday||March 12, 2020||-9.99%|
|Black Monday II||March 16, 2020||-12.93%|
Stock markets re-entered a bull market in April, but the damage had already been done. The S&P 500, for example, would only return to pre-pandemic levels in August.
To help prop up the economy, the U.S. unveiled the $2 trillion CARES Act, the largest economic stimulus package in history—near 10% of national gross domestic product.
Multiple countries locked down their borders to the rest of the world, from the European Union to India. These travel bans and reduced mobility affected not just airline revenues, but temporarily had a noticeable effect on carbon emissions too.
In addition, two world leaders—UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Russia’s President Mikhail Mishustin—contracted COVID-19.
A Deadly Surge
Numbers kept rising over the next six months, following the shifting geography of COVID-19 into densely populated regions such as Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. In a controversial move, Brazil stopped making its COVID-19 case data public starting June 7, 2020.
Global deaths due to COVID-19 surpassed half a million at the end of June—and jumped to over 1 million by the end of September. Another heartbreaking record was set in mid-October when global cases leapt up by 1 million in just three days.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, and Poland’s President Andrzej Duda were among many more world leaders to test positive for COVID-19.
December 2020-March 2021
Vaccines Bring Hope
At the very end of 2020, some optimism for things going back to normal was restored when Moderna announced the very first vaccine candidate, followed by Pfizer/BioNTech.
However, more alarm was raised as reports of a faster-spreading, more infectious strain of COVID-19 emerged from the UK. Two more variants have also since been discovered:
|Variant||Date identified||Location||Countries with Reported Cases
(Feb 28, 2021)
|B.1.1.7||Sep 2020||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||94|
|B.1.351||Oct 2020||🇿🇦 South Africa||48|
|P.1||Jan 2021||🇧🇷 Brazil*||25|
*Note: P.1 was first detected in Japan but traced back to Brazil
In January 2021, WHO organized an international scientific consultation around these variants. The good news? Existing and emerging vaccines will still potentially provide adequate protection against these variants.
In March 2021, the U.S. Congress approved President Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill. Some details of the money breakdown include:
- Up to $1,400-per-person stimulus payments for 90% of households
- $350 billion in state and local aid
- $8.5 billion to rural hospitals and healthcare providers
The rest is expected to go towards safely reopening K-12 schools, assisting hard-hit small businesses, extending food stamp benefits, vaccine R&D and distribution, and more.
An End in Sight for the COVID-19 Timeline?
With the global vaccine rollout now underway, many more key vaccine producers, from AstraZeneca/Oxford University to Johnson & Johnson, have joined in the fight to return life to normal.
Although there have been deep losses due to COVID-19, many hope that we’ll learn from the lessons of this past year, and emerge stronger than ever.
We have come so far, we have suffered so much and we have lost so many. We cannot, we must not squander the progress we have made… Science, solutions and solidarity remain our guide. There are no short-cuts.—Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO
Correction: In a previous version of the graphic, Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, was incorrectly listed as President.
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