Just when you thought there just could not possibly be another coronavirus variant, reports about a new guy in town — the R.1 variant — start swirling. And while the Delta variant continues to be the most prominent strain across the globe, R.1 appears to have "mutations of importance," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — one of which, the organization notes, "demonstrates evidence of increasing virus transmissibility." Meaning, it might be more easily spread — read: infectious — than previous strains. As of now, however, the CDC has not listed R.1 under its variants of interest or of concern (which include strains such as Delta, which have evidence of increased transmissibility, more severe disease, and reduced effectiveness in vaccines).
Just like with the Mu variant, developments about R.1 are still ongoing. In the meantime, here's a breakdown of what's currently known about the latest variant to make headlines.
When and Where Did the R.1 Variant Originate?
Despite its recent rise in so-called fame, the R.1 variant has been around for quite some time. It was first detected in Japan last year and has since made its way to other countries, including the U.S., where it accounts for less than 0.5 percent of cases, according to Charlene Brown, M.D., Ph.D., public health physician and advisor for Everlywell, an at-home health testing company.
What's more, an April 2021 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC suggests that the mutation is partially responsible for an outbreak at a Kentucky nursing home in March 2021. Many of the 46 residents and health care workers infected were already vaccinated, according to the report, thereby suggesting that this evolved virus might be more likely to cause breakthrough infections than previous mutations. (See: What Is a Breakthrough COVID Infection and How Common Is It?)
Is the R.1 Variant More Contagious?
It remains to be seen if the R.1 variant spreads more or less rapidly than other strains of COVID-19. And while it does seem to have mutations that might affect people differently than previous variants, "there is no sign that it will overtake the Delta variant's dominance," says Dr. Brown. Still, Dr. Brown does concede that the R.1 variant "is probably more contagious than some other strains of COVID-19 we have encountered." That's because, according to the CDC, the strain seems to have the D614G mutation "that shows evidence of increased transmissibility," she explains.
What Are the Symptoms of the R.1 Variant?
The symptoms of the R.1 variant don't seem to be unique or new compared to what we've seen with other COVID strains. "While respiratory illness is quite common, many patients have presented with gastrointestinal, neurological, or other symptoms [as well]," says J. Wes Ulm, M.D., Ph.D., physician and medical researcher. "Thus far it appears that R.1 does not differ substantively in the range of signs and symptoms compared to other common variants."
Translation? Like other strains of COVID-19, the R.1 variant may manifest as a fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste and/or smell, headache, body and muscle aches, as well as diarrhea or vomiting — or any combination thereof. (Related: The Most Common Coronavirus Symptoms to Look Out for, According to Experts)
How Can You Protect Yourself Against the R.1 Variant?
In a word: Vaccination.
"The unvaccinated individual is at the greatest risk if exposed to any COVID-19 variant, including the R.1 variant," explains Dr. Brown. "In the nursing home outbreak in Kentucky, unvaccinated residents were three times more likely to get COVID-19. The majority of hospitalizations and deaths were among those who were unvaccinated. That's why vaccination is the number one tool in our arsenal when fighting this pandemic and all its variants."(Related: How Effective Is the COVID-19 Vaccine?)
Dr. Ulm agrees: "It's best to think of vaccination and masking as being akin to body armor," he says. "The armor isn't perfect, and it can be chipped off and damaged, but it's still better to have additional plates on your protective shell than to be without them and, where necessary, to replace the armor (e.g., receive boosters) in cases where this has been confirmed to be important."
Whether or not the R.1 variant becomes more widespread in the U.S., it remains important to do what you can to protect yourself — and others — against all COVID strains. Keep washing your hands (correctly), practicing good germ hygiene, and, of course, getting vaccinated if and when you're eligible.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.