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COVID variants explained

Clinical Evidence Manager at Bupa
16 June 2021

This is an updated version of an article first published on 13 May. Keep up-to-date with the latest guidelines on coronavirus at gov.uk.

Chances are you’ve probably heard the term ‘COVID variants’. But, as we hopefully approach the end of restrictions in the UK, you might be wondering what this means for all of us going forward. Here I’ll explain what COVID variants are, and what impact they might have.

What is a COVID variant?

Firstly, it’s important to know that COVID-19 is a disease that’s caused by a virus. The name of the virus that causes COVID-19 is ‘SARS-CoV-2’. This is the scientific name for the virus, so you might not have heard it used very often.

All viruses change over time, and this includes the virus that causes COVID-19. When viruses change, the new types of the virus are called ‘variants’. The original virus is known as the ‘wild type’. Variants can be different to the ‘wild type’ in a variety of ways, including:

  • how quickly they can spread
  • how unwell they can make you
  • whether or not vaccines work well against them
  • whether your immune system will still remember the virus and protect you from it if you’ve caught the disease before

What are the main COVID variants?

The scientific names for the variants are a combination of letters and numbers. But for a long time, the main variants were known by the name of place they were first found. For example, you might have heard of names such as Kent, or Indian. These names weren’t always useful. So, the World Health Organisation have now given each variant a name from the Greek alphabet instead. There are currently four well-known variants in the UK.

  • The alpha variant (also known as the Kent or B.1.1.7 variant) which was first discovered in the south east of England in September 2020.
  • The beta variant (also known as the South African or B.1.351 variant). The first UK case was found in October 2020.
  • The gamma variant (also known as the Brazilian or P.2 variant). The first UK case was found in February 2021.
  • The delta variant (also known as the Indian or P.1 variant). The first UK case was found in April 2021.

These are currently classed as ‘variants of concern’. This means that they’re being monitored closely by the UK government.

Are the new variants more dangerous?

Evidence suggests that all four variants might be more easily passed from one person to another. This means they could increase the number of cases of COVID-19, putting extra strain on hospitals. There is also evidence that they make people more unwell than the original (‘wild type’) virus.

It seems that the vaccines we already have can still protect us against these variants. But some early research suggests that vaccines might not be as effective at protecting people against the delta variant.

Scientists are carrying out more research on all the variants to help us better understand how they work and how they might affect us.

How can I help stop the spread of new variants?

We are more likely to see new variants the more the virus spreads. So, the best way to reduce the number of variants we have is to stop the virus spreading. This means:

  • washing your hands regularly
  • wearing a mask whenever required
  • following social distancing guidelines
  • observing the restrictions applied to your area
  • getting vaccinated if and when you are able to

If a new variant is found in your local area you might be asked to get a COVID-19 test even if you don’t have any symptoms. This is called ‘surge testing’. It’s important that as many people in an area where a variant has been found get tested as soon as they can.

You will be able to take your test at a testing site, or order one through the post. If you test positive you will be asked to self-isolate. This is important to stop the spread of all types of COVID-19.

Lucy Hoppe
Clinical Evidence Manager at Bupa

    • The effects of virus variants on COVID-19 vaccines. World Health Organisation. www.who.int, published 1 March 2021
    • About Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, updated 02 April 2021
    • Science Brief: Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, updated 28 January 2021
    • WHO R&D Blueprint, COVID-19 new variants: Knowledge gaps and research. World Health Organisation. www.who.int, published 12 January 2021
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    • F Konings, M Perkins, J Kuhn et al. SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Interest and Concern naming scheme conducive for global discourse. Nature Microbiology 2021:1-3. doi.org/10.1038/s41564-021-00932-w
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    • Risk assessment for SARS-CoV-2 variant: Delta (VOC-21APR-02, B.1.617.2). Public Health England. www.gov.uk, published 3 June 2021

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