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SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has mutated to strains more infectious and deadlier than others.

The World Health Organisation is closely monitoring 11 strains of the SARS-CoV-2. Four of these have been put under the Variants Of Concern (VOC) category, another four have been placed under the Variants Of Interest (VOI), while three are for further monitoring.

Variants are expected from viruses including SARS-CoV-2. While most changes have little to no impact on the virus' properties, some of them are closely being watched as they could affect the virus' transmission rate, the severity of the disease, performance of the vaccines and therapeutic medicines, and social measures.

To further assess these mutations, the WHO has convened a group of scientists from the WHO Virus Evolution Working Group and representatives from the GISAID Initiative who can classify and put labels on the variants.

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Variants Of Concern (VOC)

A SARS-CoV-2 variant that falls under or is associated with one or more of the following changes is classified under VOC. 

  • Increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology.
  • Increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation.
  • Decrease in the effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics. 

Variants under this classification are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. 

Variants Of Interest (VOI)

A SARS-CoV-2 falls under VOI if it has:

  • Genetic changes that are predicted or known to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity, immune escape, diagnostic or therapeutic escape OR
  • Identified to cause significant community transmission or multiple COVID-19 clusters, in multiple countries with increasing relative prevalence alongside an increasing number of cases over time, or other apparent epidemiological impacts to suggest an emerging risk to global public health.  

Strains under this classification are Eta, Iota, Kappa, and Lambda. 

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Know more about the four VOCs and four VOIs below:

1 / 9

Alpha

First identified:  United Kingdom

Spread: Studies have suggested that this variant is much more contagious than the original virus — it has been found to increase transmission by around 50 per cent. The spike protein of this strain helps it bind more closely to cells when it infects people.

Vaccine: Currently authorised vaccines do work against this variant. 

2 / 9

Beta

First identified: South Africa

Spread: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this strain may "spread faster than other variants" as it includes one particular change that scientists are closely monitoring: E484K, or the “Eek” mutation.

Vaccine: Currently authorized vaccines do work against this variant. 

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3 / 9

Gamma

First identified: Japan and Brazil (Discovered in Japanese travellers who have recently been to Brazil).

Spread: One study found that the variant is 1.7 to 2.4 times as transmissible as the original form of the virus.

Vaccine: Infections happen in only a small proportion of people who are fully vaccinated.

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4 / 9

Delta

First identified: India

Spread:  According to COVID Expert Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, there are already 96 countries with Delta variants as of July 2021. The new variant appears to be about 225 per cent more transmissible than original SARS-CoV-2 strains. One study from China concluded that people who are infected with Delta have about "1,000 more copies of the virus in their respiratory tracts than those infected with the original strain."

Vaccine: Even though they may slightly be less effective, research suggests that authorised vaccines still offer protection against this strain.

Delta in the Philippines: Places in the country have been placed under more aggressive forms of quarantine following the threats of Delta strain. As of August 15 2021, the Health Agency has detected the variant in 809 people.

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Eta

First identified: United Kingdom

Spread: The Eta variant consists of the same E484K mutation found in Beta variants. The spike protein in eta contains an ‘escape mutation’ that allows the virus to go undetected by some immune defences of the human body.

Vaccine: Neither the WHO nor the CDC has released information regarding the effectiveness of authorised vaccines against this strain.

6 / 9

Iota

First identified: United States 

Spread: The strain has rapidly infected people in New York City early in the year. These infections make up more than a quarter of sequences in the city by February. Typically, the strain comes in two forms; one that comes with an E484K, and another with a key mutation that helps it latch onto cells more tightly. 

Vaccine: The efficacy of authorised vaccines are high, but breakthrough infections still occur.

7 / 9

Kappa

First identified: India

Spread: The Kappa strain is the one closest to the feared Delta variant. Research suggests that it can evade the body's immune defences. When Kappa first spread in India, it has triggered lockdowns and even reached Australia.

Vaccine: Researchers concluded that the antibodies induced by mRNA vaccines will be still strong enough for many hosts and protective immunity is “most likely retained” against Delta and Kappa.

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8 / 9

Lambda

First identified: Peru

Spread: As of this writing, Lambda's transmissibility is still being closely monitored by scientists. “This VOI has the potential to affect the transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 and is currently being monitored for its possible clinical significance,” the Department of Health (DOH) said.

Vaccine: Some studies suggest that the strain could be vaccine-resistant.According to the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, the mutation of this variant is associated with being resistant to immunization efforts. This study, however, has not been peer-reviewed.

Lambda in the Philippines: The first case of Lambda was detected by the University of the Philippines-Philippine Genome Center out of the 373 random COVID-19 cases analysed last August 12. According to DOH, the case was an asymptomatic 35-year-old female. She was tagged as recovered after undergoing a 10-day isolation period. 

9 / 9

B.1.1.318

First identified: Maurituis

Spread: As of this writing, the B.1.1.318 transmissibility is still being closely monitored by medical experts. “They had a cluster of 120 cases there and this variant under monitoring is the result," Health Undersecretary Vergeire announced in a televised press briefing

Lambda in the Philippines: The first case of B.1.1.318 was detected in a 34-year-old male who arrived in the Philippines from overseas last March 10. The patient recovered last March 25. 

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