Covid-19 variants of concern — and what we know about them

The World Health Organisation recently renamed Covid-19 variants using letters of the Greek Alphabet to replace the common usage of linking a variant to the country where it was first detected.

This was done because naming Covid-19 variants based on the countries where they were discovered politicised the response to the pandemic.

For example, travel bans were imposed on countries where variants originated, and people from these countries were stigmatised and targeted.

In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that it is more practical for non-scientific audiences to use the Greek naming convention.

The organisation has also split the Covid-19 variants into two groups – Variants of Concern and Variants of Interest.

  • Variants of Concern — Display an Increase in transmissibility, more severe disease, or a decrease in the effectiveness of public health measures, vaccines, and therapeutics.
  • Variants of Interest — Have genetic markers that are predicted to affect transmissions, diagnostics, therapeutics, or immune escape. They can cause unique outbreak clusters.

The best known Covid-19 variants are variants of concern because of the dangers they pose to people.

These variants are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta, first discovered in the UK, South Africa, Brazil, and India respectively.

Each variant has unique attributes, but one thing most variants of concern have in common is that they are more transmissible.

According to Nextstrain, the Beta variant is most prominent in South Africa with over half of infections, followed by the Alpha and Delta variants.

The attributes of each variant are still being researched, but recent studies have identified a few characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern.

The table below provides an overview of the variants of concern and their unique characteristics.

Sources for this table include the World Health Organisation and US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

SARS-CoV-2 Variants
WHO Name First country documented Date discovered Charactaristics
Alpha United Kingdom September 2020
  • More transmissible
  • Increased mortality
  • Additional symptoms
Beta South Africa May 2020
  • More transmissible
  • Reduces effectiveness of antibodies
Gamma Brazil November 2020
  • Reduces effectiveness of antibodies
  • Reduces efficacy of vaccines
Delta India October 2020
  • More transmissible
  • Different symptoms
  • Reduces effectiveness of antibodies
  • More likely to be hospitalised
  • One vaccine dose less effective

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Covid-19 variants of concern — and what we know about them