Making Sense of COVID-19 Variants
Updated: Jul 9
This May, the World Health Organization announced a simpler naming scheme for Covid-19 variants by using letters of the Greek alphabet. The previous method of using genetic lineage from Pango, GISAID and Nextstrain is still used by scientists, but these new labels from the WHO make it much easier for the average person to follow news regarding the mutating virus.
The Greek-named variants are divided into two categories: variants of concern and variants of interest.
Variants of concern are defined as coronaviruses that appear to be more infectious or cause more severe symptoms than other circulating coronaviruses. The current variants of concern are: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. You’ve probably heard of at least Delta by now - it’s becoming a prevalent strain in the United States. It’s currently the most common strain in India, and has also been found in the UK and Israel.
Alpha (B.1.1.7 lineage)
The Alpha variant is thought to be 30 to 50% more infectious than other strains circulating currently. It originated in Great Britain, but is now the dominant strain in the US. It is also suggested by preliminary studies to be roughly 55% more deadly - however, vaccines have been shown to be effective against it.
Beta (B.1.351 lineage)
Covid-19 vaccines have unfortunately shown to be less effective against the Beta variant. Luckily, the FDA is developing a plan to update vaccines should this variant start to surge here in the United States.
Gamma (P.1 lineage)
The Gamma variant has been overshadowed lately by Delta, but is quickly gaining traction and has been identified in 31 states so far. It originated in Brazil, a country hit particularly hard by the pandemic. It also has some spike protein mutations, that both help the virus infect human cells more easily and evade some types of antibodies.
Delta (B.1.617 lineage)
The Delta variant has been dominant in the news cycle lately. It is quickly spreading around the world, and causing lockdowns and postponing re-openings. It’s believed to be one of the most transmissible variants yet, even more so than the Alpha variant. Even more concerning, it may be able to evade the antibodies that vaccinated individuals have developed, and also cause more severe illness in those that get infected with it. It is essential to have both doses of the vaccine and a high degree of immunity to be protected against this variant.
Variants of interest are defined as coronaviruses with mutations that may help it evade antibodies or bind more tightly to human cells. Current variants of interest are: Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, and Kappa.
With the vaccine widely available and restrictions continuing to ease, it’s understandable to be excited about things going back to normal. However, with these variants quickly spreading and possibly infecting vaccinated individuals as well, it is still important to wear a mask, especially in public places, and avoid large gatherings and crowded areas.
This doesn’t mean the vaccine isn’t effective - it is simply the nature of viruses to mutate rapidly, and often. It is still necessary to get the Covid vaccine, whichever one that is available in your area. Some variants may be able to evade your antibodies, but the vaccine still greatly reduces your chances of catching Covid.
Anthes, Emily. “The Delta Variant: What Scientists Know.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 June 2021.
Corum, Jonathan, and Carl Zimmer. “Coronavirus Variants and Mutations.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 June 2021.
León, Concepción De. “Traveling This Summer? Here's What You Should Know About the Delta Variant.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 June 2021.