The coronavirus variants of concern explained
Indian variant renamed Delta in bid to avoid stigma of geographical labels
The four Covid-19 “variants of concern” have been renamed with letters of the Greek alphabet in a bid to avoid the stigma associated with strains coming from specific geographical areas.
The variant first identified in India, which is now spreading across England, has been relabelled “Delta” by the World Health Organization (WHO), while the so-called Kent variant will be known as “Alpha”.
What are variants of concern?
As viruses make copies of themselves to spread, their set of genetic instructions can change a little bit, explains Dr Richard Pebody, who leads the High-threat Pathogen team at WHO/Europe.
While these mutations are “usually not significant” they can occasionally result in a variant that is more easily transmitted or more severe than the original, he says. These therefore cause more concern than others. Currently, there are four variants of concern:
- Alpha (B.1.1.7): Also known as the Kent variant, samples of this mutation were first documented in September 2020. It was designated a variant of concern on 18 December, which – as The i newspaper notes – “led to tough Covid-19 restrictions in the UK over Christmas”. It has since become the dominant strain in the UK. A study published in the BMJ by the University of Exeter and Bristol in March this year suggested it was linked to a higher chance of hospitalisation and death than the original strain.
- Beta (B.1.351): Another variant of concern, designated in December, was B.1.351, first documented in May 2020 in South Africa. It is believed to spread more quickly than the original strain, but is not thought to be more deadly. “There are currently only a small number of cases of the South African variant in the UK, and the government has put measures in place to minimise community spread of this variant,” says the British Heart Foundation’s Heart Matters magazine.
- Gamma (P.1): The so-called Brazilian variant was discovered in November. Like the South Africa mutation, it spreads more easily but is not more deadly than the initial strain – and “it is not yet thought to be widespread in the UK”, says Heart Matters.
- Delta (B.1.617.2): Known as the Indian variant, B.1.617.2 is the most recently designated variant of concern, having been classified as such on 11 May. It is “thought to be driving a rise in Covid cases in parts of the UK and is believed to be both more transmissible than the variant first detected in Kent” and “somewhat more resistant to Covid vaccines, particularly after just one dose”, reports The Guardian. However, there is not yet evidence to suggest it is more deadly.
What’s in a name?
The new Greek alphabet labels are a move to “both simplify the public discussion and to strip some of the stigma from the emergence of new variants”, reports US health site Stat. Variants will retain their scientific names, such as B.1.617.2, but the Greek letter is designed to replace nicknames such as “the Indian variant”.
“A country may be more willing to report it has found a new variant if it knows the new version of the virus will be identified as Rho or Sigma rather than with the country’s name,” reports Stat, after interviewing Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s coronavirus lead.
She told the site: “We’re not saying replace B.1.1.7, but really just to try to help some of the dialogue with the average person. So that in public discourse, we could discuss some of these variants in more easy-to-use language.”