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What is the difference between the COVID variants?

Recently the COVID-19 variants went through a name change. Confused about which variant is what? Here’s an easy to understand list of all the different COVID-19 variants and their new names.

But first, why did they change the names?  

To avoid stigmatisation. By naming the variants after where they were identified, it can have long-lasting damage to a nation’s identity. According to Professor of Microbial Evolution, Ed Feil, using geographical names can stoke up racism and xenophobia. Additionally, by naming the variants with the country it was first identified in, it can act as a disincentive for nations to detect new variants as it is harmful to their national image. It can also be an inaccurate label, as there is a chance the variant did not actually originate from the country that first identified it. 

Instead, the World Health Organization (WHO) has used the Greek alphabet as a way to differentiate the COVID-19 variants in an attempt to remove stigma. This now allows for governments and individuals to clearly identify the various strains without having to attach a nation’s name to it. Here’s a list: 

Alpha 

  • Originally identified in the UK in September 2020
  • This was the strain that caused the UK lockdown in January
  • Other previous names for this variant include the UK variant, the Kent variant and B.1.1.7.

Beta

  • Originally identified in South Africa in May 2020
  • It is the oldest of the variants 
  • Other previous names for variant include B.1.351 and the South African variant 

Gamma

  • Originally identified in Japan, in travellers from Brazil in November 2020
  • It was responsible for a surge in cases in Manaus, Brazil where it was thought that the population had reached herd immunity 
  • The strain is also known as P1 and the Brazilian variant

Delta 

  • Originally identified in India in October 2020
  • It is considered a highly contagious strain and is classified as a variant of concern by the WHO
  • Its other names include B.1.617.2 and the Indian variant (not to be confused with the other ‘Indian variant’. Yes, there are two under that former name, we’ll explain why in a moment)

Kappa

  • Also originally identified in India, the Kappa variant (also known as B.1.617.1.) is similar to the Delta variant as it originated from the same strain 
  • The WHO treats Kappa as a variant of interest, compared to Delta which is considered a variant of concern
  • According to Burnet Institute epidemiologist Mike Toole, “we don’t know much about the Kappa variant because it more or less died out very quickly in India and the UK and was replaced by the Delta variant”

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