Does the news about the various COVID-19 variants sometimes confuse you? Labels like alpha, delta and their derivatives are commonly used to tell the story of the variants.
Since its late 2019 emergence in Wuhan, China, COVID-19 has so far killed 4.3 million people out of a reported 203 million cases worldwide.
The viral disease attacks the body’s respiratory system. In severe cases, a patient can die if not diagnosed and treated on time. Since it was first identified, COVID-19 has rapidly evolved from the initial alpha to the current delta variants that are driving the latest waves of infection around the globe.
Through the WHO Virus Evolution Working Group (VEWG), the UN health body monitors changes to SARS-CoV-2 to detect potential variants of concern (VOC) and variants of interest (VOI) that pose an increased risk to global public health.
A variant of concern is a strain that has been linked to the widespread transmission of COVID-19. For instance, the delta variant is behind around 90 per cent of new cases in Kenya, according to Ministry of Health estimates.
Media for Environment Science Health and Agriculture (MESHA) recently hosted an in-depth presentation by Dr Francis Angira of the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).
Dr Angira, who is a research officer and epidemiologist at the KEMRI Center for Global Health Research, says the term variant is derived from the verb ‘vary’, which means ‘to change’.
Speaking at the 35th MESHA science cafe held on August 10, 2021, Dr Angira said the virus variants or mutations were a natural occurrence.
“All viruses evolve over time. Most changes have little to no impact on the virus properties,” says the scientist.
According to Dr Angira, some changes in COVID-19’s viral structure are significant and worth the attention of the scientific community and healthcare systems.
The most significant changes occur in the virus spike protein used to attach to human cells. Such variations alter their ability to infect humans and spread from person to person.
“Most changes to the virus are insignificant. However, if significant changes are identified, variants are given scientific names and the public is informed,” he told Afya Watch.
He said the changes in the COVID-19 virus had affected the world’s capacity to deal with the healthcare challenges that the initial variant had posed.
“However, some changes to SARS-CoV-2 lead to variants of the virus that may affect the ability of the virus to spread or transmissibility, disease severity, the efficacy of vaccines, medicines or diagnostic tools,” says the researcher.
How Are Covid 19 Variants Named?
“GISAID, NEXTstrain and Pango are established systems that name and track virus variants of concern and variants of interest. These systems are designed to give scientists a common language in which they can discuss and investigate the evolution of SARS-CoV-2,” said Dr Angira.
The naming system is based on the Greek alphabet hence the use of labels like alpha, delta and gamma.
One disadvantage of the system was the confusion created by the many labels.
“The complex and different SARS-CoV-2 variant naming systems have created confusion among the public. Alternative SARSCoV-2 variant names have been used that include country names,” he said.
The researcher said the use of country names to identify variants had opened a new avenue for stigmatizing the countries and communities where the variants were first reported.
“ A case in point was former US President Donald Trump’s reference to COVID-19 as ‘the Chinese virus’ which can stigmatize people from that region,” he said.
For this reason, Dr Angira said the WHO had established a new naming system that focuses on the variant and not its site of discovery.
“The new WHO system assigns SARS-CoV-2 variant names that are easy to pronounce and minimizes negative effects on countries and their citizens. WHO recommends labels using letters of the Greek alphabet,
like Alpha, Beta and Gamma,” Dr Angira said.
“Once all 24 letters have been assigned, other lists of names will be considered,” he added.
Using the current variants in circulation, he gave an example of how SARS-CoV-2 variants are labelled.
“The SARS-CoV-2 variants that first circulated were denoted as lineages ‘A’ or ‘B’. As they evolved, their descendants were marked by a series of numbers. For example, B.1 includes the outbreak in Europe in
early 2020,” said Dr Angira.
He explained that the UK variant was named according to the order of identification. “The variant named B.1.351, is its 351st descendant,” said Dr Angira.
He added that new lineages are named when the existing ones become too lengthy.
“If these names become too long, a new lineage begins under a different letter of the alphabet. For example, the variant that was first identified in Brazil is called P.1,” he said.
Dr Angira called on Kenyans to maintain the WHO-recommended preventive measures including wearing face masks, practising proper cough hygiene, frequent hand-washing and keeping a social distance of at least 1.5 metres.
He also urged Kenyans to embrace vaccination and protect themselves against severe disease and death from infection.
“We must maintain the preventive protocols as the best safeguard against COVID-19 infection. Please get vaccinated so as to be protected from severe disease and death in case of infection,” the scientist said.
To learn more about COVID-19 variants, log onto: