COVID-19 Variants Explained

Epicentre News • 09 December 2021

What is a new ‘strain’ of COVID-19

Variants or strains of viruses happen when there is a change / mutation to the virus’s genes (Johns Hopkins Article). It’s normal and expected for RNA viruses like the coronavirus to evolve and change over time (Johns Hopkins Article).

How many variants or types of COVID-19 are there?

It is important to note that that viruses mutate regularly, and COVID-19 has undergone thousands of mutations since it first emerged (Duong, 2021). But only a very small minority of those mutations are likely to be significant and change the virus meaningfully (Wise, 2020). Most mutations are just useful as a barcode to monitor outbreaks (Wise, 2020).

So to answer this question in a simple way, there are thousands of variants of COVID-19, but as of Nov 2021 there are only 4 variants of concern (ecdc; 2021).

A variant of concern is a strain of COVID-19 that has been observed to be more infectious, more likely to cause breakthrough or re-infections in those who are vaccinated or previously infected (Johns Hopkins Article). These variants are more likely to cause severe disease, evade diagnostic tests, or resist antiviral treatment (Johns Hopkins Article).

The types of COVID-19 that have been labelled as variants of concern are:

Beta: The COVID-19 variant that was first detected in South Africa

Gamma: The COVID-19 variant that was first detected in Brazil

Delta: The COVID-19 variant that was first detected in India

Omicron: The COVID-19 variant that was first detected in South Africa* (possibly first in Western Europe)

However, it should be noted that which variants are seen as ‘concerning’ changes based on who writes the article and where you are. For example, variants that are seen as concerning to the EU is different to the variant that is seen as concerning in the US. This is because is viewed from the perspective of what is circulating currently in that area. So this should be taken under consideration when viewing these articles.

Do these changes make it more deadly?

Not necessarily. Often, it is more advantageous for a respiratory virus to evolve so that it spreads more easily. Whilst, mutations that make a virus more deadly may not give the virus an opportunity to spread efficiently. So mutations in COVID-19 frequently favour being more infectious rather than being more deadly. However, more infections from a faster-spreading variant will mean more people to have serious reactions and thus more hospitalizations and deaths.

Why do some strains take over other strains?

Some mutations seem to affect the coronavirus’s spike protein, which covers the outer coating of SARS-CoV-2 and gives the virus its characteristic spiny appearance (Johns Hopkins Article). These proteins help the virus attach to human cells in the nose, lungs and other areas of the body (Johns Hopkins Article).

Researchers have early evidence that some new variants seem to bind more tightly to our cells (Johns Hopkins Article). This seems to make some of these new strains ‘stickier’ due to changes in the spike protein, which makes them easily transmitted (Johns Hopkins Article).

November 2022 COVID Update: South Africa

The latest National Institute For Communicable diseases COVID-19 variant tracking report on is out. This means that we’ve got the inside scoop on which variants are worrying experts fighting this virus.

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