As COVID-19 mutates and evolves, new strains of the virus raise concerns, and apprehension about their virulence; are they more deadly? Are they less susceptible to vaccinations? Do they bring other symptoms with them?
New variants have been first discovered in the UK, South Africa, Japan and Brazil, and infection rates spread across the globe.
This is all you need to know about the different variants of COVID-19.
In late 2020, scientists detected a new, and potentially more contagious variant of the pandemic-causing-coronavirus.
Causing heightened fears as it spread rapidly in Britain, and alarm in European neighbors, it eventually caused strict lockdowns across the UK.
The mutated strain became the first ”Variant Under Investigation” in December 2020, but it’s believed to have been first detected in September.
By mid-December, around two-thirds of total infection were from the new variant, and over the last week in December, the number of cases in London doubled, with at least 60 percent of the infections being from this variant.
The governments of Australia, Italy and the Netherlands say they detected cases of the new strain in early December.
The main worry that remains today is that the variant is much more transmissible than the original strain. It has 23 mutations in its genetic code, and some of them boost its ability to spread. Scientists say there’s no evidence that vaccines being deployed will not protect the public from the variant.
The possible higher susceptibility of the new variant for children compared to the original strain has also been flagged.
South Africa variant
In December, South Africa identified its own variant of the novel coronavirus, with the authorities saying at the time that it was driving a surge in COVID-19 infections and could overwhelm its healthcare system.
This variant focused in the south and southeast regions of the country and continues to dominate findings from samples collected since October, according to local media.
First identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, it spread rapidly to other districts in the Eastern and Western Capes, and KwaZulu Natal (KZN) province.
Scientists say the variant is different from others circulating in South Africa because multiple mutations in the ”spike” protein the virus uses to infect human cells brings a higher viral load. This means those infected have higher concentration of virus particles and could contribute to higher levels of transmission.
In January, reports circulated that a new coronavirus variant had been detected in four people in Japan. They had traveled from Brazil’s Amazonas state.
The Japanese health ministry official was quoted in local media as saying studies were underway into the efficacy of vaccines against the new variant. Believed to have at least 12 mutations in the spike protein, it is similar with the UK and South African variants.
Japan has seen a steep rise in coronavirus cases in January, with emergencies declared in Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures.
Are concerns justified?
All viruses, including the one that causes COVID-19, change over time, and there have been hundreds of variations of this virus identified worldwide.