The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly prompted major changes in the daily lives and mindsets of the world’s population at large. Safety precautions of wearing face masks, using hand sanitisers, maintaining social distancing in public places and getting inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine are absolutely necessary when stepping out to work, shop or travel nowadays. While these aspects of the “new normal” are universal and standardized in every country across the globe, unfortunately, the misinformation surrounding the several SARS-CoV-2 variants emerging in different countries is not only inconsistent and flawed but has also lead to discrimination.
In this regard, when India witnessed a massive resurgence of coronavirus infection in the second wave during the months of April and May in 2021, a lot of negative propaganda about the country, its people and government were being circulated. This was primarily due to the new SARS-CoV-2 variant – B.1.617 and its two subtypes – B.1.617.1 and B.1.617.2 that were spreading infection all over the subcontinent at a rapid pace, being dubbed as the “Indian Variant” by the press in other nations worldwide, with some even claiming that the WHO had specified the name. The Union Health Ministry in India promptly raised its objections on May 12, 2021, to this biased labelling, adding that the World Health Organization (WHO) has not tagged any country’s name while referring to this mutated strain of coronavirus. In its statement, it was clearly quoted that, "These media reports are without any basis, and unfounded,".
On May 31, 2021, the WHO finally put to rest all these misconceptions associated with the SARS-CoV-2 variants that surfaced in India as well as in other countries around the world, by releasing a statement announcing an easy and practical labelling system for different strains of the coronavirus. The COVID-19 Technical Lead at the WHO, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, made the announcement public on Twitter, declaring that, "Today, @WHO announces new, easy-to-say labels for #SARSCoV2 Variants of Concern (VOCs) & Interest (VOIs). They will not replace existing scientific names, but are aimed to help in public discussion of VOI/VOC". It is hence of utmost importance that the general public in India as well as in all other countries worldwide understand what these terminologies of VOI, VOC mean and how the different SARS-CoV-2 strains are named.
FAQs About The SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus Variants Of COVID-19:
1. What are Variants Of Interest (VOI) And Variants Of Concern (VOC)?
First and foremost, it is vital to understand that all viruses go through mutations continuously during their life cycle within the host. Thus this applies to the SARS-CoV-2 strain of coronavirus as well, which manifests in the form of different variants with mutations in its spike proteins, so as to invade and multiply more effectively in the host – the human body.
The WHO tracks and monitors the effects of these COVID-19 variants with respect to disease transmission and severity of the infection and classifies them into two categories: Variants Of Interest (VOI) and Variants Of Concern (VOC).
Variants Of Interest (VOI): VOIs have mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 viral genome which cause considerable spread of coronavirus infection amongst the local population in a country or have been detected in clusters of people in many countries.
Variants of Concern (VOC): These virus strains also exhibit mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 genome and in addition to triggering rampant spread of COVID-19 in the place of origin, also possess a higher rate of transmissibility – potential to spread among people and increased virulence i.e. showcasing more viral load in infected people when compared to the original coronavirus vector. They also tend to render public health policies and healthcare aids of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutic medications less effective than usual.
2. What is the strategy adopted in naming COVID-19 variants?
The WHO has stated that the SARS-CoV-2 variants will be assigned names with the Greek Alphabets – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on, as per the recommendations of health experts in nomenclature and virus classification i.e. taxonomy. While this was announced as a move to simplify public knowledge and discussion about coronavirus variants, the WHO also said that the SARS-CoV-2 variants would continue to be referred to with the scientific names assigned to them by globally recognised research organizations such as GISAID, Nextstrain and Pango, for the purpose of research and official discussions.
3. What Are The Names Of Global SARS-CoV-2 Variants Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic?
The labels given to the different SARS-CoV-2 variants around the world are as follows:
Alpha variant: B.1.1.7 variant spotted in the UK in September 2020
Beta variant: B.1.351 variant first found in South Africa in May 2020
Gamma variant: P.1 variant first spotted in Brazil in November 2020
Epsilon variant: B.1.427/ B.1.429 variant spotted in the USA in March 2020
Zeta variant: P.2 variant found in Brazil in April 2020
Eta variant: B.1.525 variant found in many countries in December 2020
Theta variant: P.3 variant spotted in the Philippines in January 2021
Lota variant: B.1.526 variant found in the USA in November 2020
4. What Are The Names Of COVID-19 Variants That Emerged In India?
- The B.1.617.1 variant has been designated as Kappa
- The B.1.617.2 variant has been given the label Delta
Both these SARS-CoV-2 variants were first identified in India in October 2020 and on May 11, 2021, in the midst of the destructive second wave of coronavirus infections in India, the WHO named the Delta variant as a variant of concern (VOC).
5. What Are The Uses And Benefits Of Assigning Labels To COVID-19 Variants?
The main purpose of the WHO assembling a team of experts and assigning universal and more importantly “neutral” names for the numerous SARS-CoV-2 variants is twofold:
- To make the transfer of information and knowledge among the general public easier and also,
- To stop all stigma and bias towards a particular local population owing to the origin of a specific variant in that country.