Alpha, Delta, Iota, Epsilon, Kappa; the world can be a confusing place when you’re not an epidemiologist who speaks ancient Greek.
These are all names of mutations of the SARS-COV-2 virus that first emerged from Wuhan, China some 18 months ago and quickly spread across the globe.
The global death toll stands at around four million, making this the most deadly virus we have seen in over a century. While the original strain of the COVID-19 virus remains far deadlier than the flu, and more transmissible, the further mutations pose an even greater risk.
Here’s everything you need to know about these new strains of COVID.
What are the main variants of COVID?
It’s coming—#DeltaVariant is now >96% dominant in 3 major counties (UK, Russia, Portugal). It is surging exponentially in the US at now 31% of all cases, up from ~10% just a week ago. The #COVID19 rise & divergence hidden by fast dropping #AlphaVariant. 🧵https://t.co/oQkVY8CFoj pic.twitter.com/psS4j1CVk4
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) June 20, 2021
The World Health Organisation has been tracking the evolution of the novel coronavirus since January 2020. At the end of 2020, new mutations of the virus begun to emerge that were a cause for concern to the organisation.
Viruses mutate all the time and COVID-19 is no different. Sometimes, though, those mutations make the virus more transmissible, more severe or affect the efficacy of vaccines, treatments, diagnostics, and other public health measures.
The WHO has characterised some specific COVID-19 variants as ‘Variants of Interest’ and ‘Variants of Concern’ to prioritise their monitoring and develop strategies to deal with them.
The current variants of concern are:
These are variants of COVID that have been shown to have either an increase in transmissibility, and increase in virulence, or a decrease in the “effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics”.
Essentially, these are the bad ones and are more dangerous than your good old fashioned, run-of-the-mill COVID.
Variants of interest include:
These are variants that have been identified as the source of community transmission across the world but have not yet been identified as significantly more or less harmful than regular COVID.
Typically, these are newer variants where the data might still be being gathered on how concerning they actually should or could be.
Scientists around the world are racing to figure out how dangerous these could be and keeping an eye out for new variants which are emerging all the time.
Where did they come from?
Nobody understands the Greek letter thing. It’s too weird that “alpha” is a variant. How about:
Covid (original series)
Alpha = Next Generation Covid
Beta = Wrath of Covid
Gamma = the Search for covid
Delta = Covid Deep Space Nine
— Ariel Rabkin (@AriTalking) June 28, 2021
COVID-19 is caused by an RNA virus, the same virus which causes influenza or the common flu. They are all classified as coronaviruses — ‘corona’ being Latin for ‘crown’ — which is named after the spike proteins that surround the circular virus like a crown.
They’re apparently quite bad at replicating themselves, meaning that as they infect cells in the body and reproduce, the instability of their genetics causes imperfect copies to be produced.
Many of these imperfect copies simply die out but the ones that, by chance, happen to be more infectious, or have some other advantage that allows them to replicate with ease, go on to become dominant. This is essentially evolution in a nutshell.
The variants all emerged from different areas of the world. Initially, you would have heard talk of the ‘Indian strain’, the ‘Brazillian strain’, or the ‘UK strain’.
That’s because these countries are places where the new mutations were first detected and led to new outbreaks.
A lot of these places had higher rates of COVID infections to begin with so it’s no surprise that they are the source of the new variants. More COVID cases, more chance for a virus to mutate aggressively.
In the past, new viruses had been named after their place of origin: Spanish flu, MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Sickness), SARS, (South Asian Respiratory Sickness) and so on.
People love to blame a new threat on someone or somewhere and the results of this are that that population or region becomes associated with sickness, perpetuating stereotypes and inflaming prejudices.
Even Donald Trump tried to rebrand COVID-19 the ‘China virus’ and the ‘Wuhan flu’ which aggravated anti-Asian racism in the US and elsewhere, leading to a shocking and depressing rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the world.
The WHO doesn’t want that which is why it made the decision to rebrand all of the new mutants with letters of the Greek alphabet, instead of naming them after their place of origin.
It’s easier to keep track of and less stigmatising, so everyone wins.
How bad are these new variants?
Well, they’re not great.
The Alpha, Delta, and Kappa strains appear to be of the most concern to the world right now.
Delta, which was first identified in India, has been reported in more than 80 countries across the world and health authorities are extremely concerned with not only how transmissible it is, but how dangerous.
I’ve gotta be honest, I am not mentally prepared to be talking about the Delta Variant
— FINNEAS (@finneas) June 29, 2021
To put it in perspective, the Delta variant is thought to be 50-60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which itself is already 50-60% more transmissible than regular COVID.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that Delta accounted for 20.6% of all COVID-19 cases between June 5 and June 19.
Alpha is the strain that was first detected in the UK and has become strain number two on the list of concerns.
Kappa is another strain also first detected in India which is causing record-high numbers of infections, along with Delta and Alpha, in Europe and across the Asian subcontinent.
Beta and Gamma are the two most difficult variants that people in Africa and South America are currently grappling with.
The WHO is closely monitoring Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta variants, but Delta is the one of most concern.
What is Delta Plus?
Delta Plus is another new variant of concern that recently emerged in India. It’s thought of as a ‘double-mutant’ because it has characteristics of both the Delta and Beta strains of the virus.
all this talk about the delta variant and now there's delta+? didn't realise the coronavirus was going to release a freakin streaming service am i right folks!
— dan nolan (@dannolan) June 29, 2021
It’s a mutation of Delta with spike protein variations known as K417N that is concerning scientists for its ability to dodge the bodies natural immune response. It could well be more transmissible as well as making our current treatment methods less effective against it.
The reason it’s known as Delta Plus is because it’s not different enough to warrant its own letter but needs to be identified as a more aggressive strain of Delta.
According to the Indian Express, scientists in the country are keeping a close eye on Delta Plus.
While its transmissibility is being monitored, and lab tests are underway to check vaccine effectiveness, experts in India have said that Delta Plus does not appear to be more infectious than Delta at this stage.
The WHO has said that while the new strains are a concern, strategies and measures they have recommended — including lockdowns, vaccinations, social distancing, and mask-wearing — are continuing to work against these variants.
What is Lambda?
The Lambda variant has recently arrived on our shores when it was detected in an overseas traveller in hotel quarantine in New South Wales in April.
Lambda was first detected in Peru in December 2020 and some reports suggest that it could be very fast spreading and difficult to tackle with vaccines.
Lambda accounted for over 80 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Peru, and a high proportion of cases also in Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador in April and May.
This new variant has mutations similar to the Delta and Epsilon variants which make those two more resilient and more infectious.
It’s possible that this one could be even more infectious than Delta or Epsilon but it’s still too early to tell for sure.