V is for Variants: Alpha and Omicron of Covid-19’s Journey So Far

Do you remember the days when newscasters were talking about the “novel coronavirus”? At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, media and governments struggled to come up with a name for the new respiratory disease originating in China. Was it “coronavirus” or “Wuhan pneumonia”, “Covid-19” or “severe acute respiratory?” coronavirus syndrome 2 ”?

The arrival of new variants has compounded the problem. Initially, the variants were named after the country in which they were discovered. In December 2020, the World Health Organization designated the so-called “Kent variant” and “South African variant” of concern.

But in May 2021, the World Health Organization announced that the variants would be named using the Greek alphabet to avoid stigmatizing the countries that discovered them. The ‘Kent variant’ – which became dominant in the UK during the winter of 2020/21 – became known as ‘Alpha‘, while the South African variant became ‘Beta’.

As the vaccination program was in full swing by spring 2021, it was clear that variants could prolong the pandemic by making vaccines less effective or making the virus more transmissible.

A variant detected in Brazil – later named “Gamma” – contributed to an increase in infections in South America. The Delta variant appeared over the summer and is currently the dominant variant in the world. It is estimated to be twice as transmissible as the previous variants, and is believed to have caused the deadly second wave in India and contributed to the third wave in the UK.

Now the Omicron variant is sweeping the country with incredible speed. Although at the time of writing, there are early signs that the Omicron may be milder, preliminary results suggest that it is more transmissible than the Delta variant. For many, this latest variation will mean another Christmas spent in isolation.

And, as we’ve learned over the past year, it won’t be the last.

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