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Just How Many COVID Variants Are There?

A lot. Most of them are nothing to worry about.

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Sep 15 2021, 12:31 PM

First it was Alpha. Now Delta is the talk of the town. Recently, reports of Lambda and Mu have raised new concerns. Just how many COVID variants are there? It’s like the coronavirus is going to keep mutating forever! Which… yeah, it is, actually. That’s how viruses work, from the flu to chickenpox to HPV. And although that’s terrifying, it doesn’t guarantee doom and gloom and a never-ending COVID-19 pandemic. So take a breath.

Mutations happen randomly in all living things. And depending on the type of organism, some or all of those mutations are passed down to the next generation, which comes very quickly in viruses. (Viruses aren’t technically living, but it’s the same idea.) Some of those mutations actually make the virus worse at infecting people, and they fizzle out. Many mutations are neutral. But some benefit the virus, allowing it to spread faster in humans, such as by becoming more transmissible or better at evading the COVID vaccines.

Currently, there are four so-called variants of concern and six variants of interest on the combined watchlists of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), though there are many more than health officials aren’t especially worried about.

As long as COVID is circulating, it’s going to keep mutating, and new variants will pop up. Large populations of unvaccinated people make it more likely for these variants to evolve, so get your shot!

Types of COVID Variants

Some variants are considered variants of interest by organizations such as the WHO and CDC. Variants of interest could be worse than the original coronavirus, but health authorities aren’t quite sure yet. They might have genetic markers that could change transmission, diagnostics, treatment, or the virus’ ability to evade the immune system, or they may be suspected to cause more severe disease or increase transmissibility. But these variants aren’t very prevalent. In other words, the authorities are tracking these variants because they could potentially become a problem, but they aren’t one at the moment.

As a step up, the WHO and CDC classify some as variants of concern. There is evidence that these variants are worse for diagnostics, treatments, or vaccines, or that they’re more transmissible or cause more severe disease. Basically, they’re confirmed as more dangerous, although they may or may not be widely prevalent.

There are also variants of high consequence, which are the top tier scary variants. Luckily, none have been identified yet. To reach this level, there would have to be “clear evidence that prevention measures of medical countermeasures… have significantly reduced effectiveness relative to previously circulating variants.” Yes, this type of variant would have to be worse than Delta.

The WHO and CDC don’t classify all the same variants at the same level. Some may not even make it to one of the lists although they are on the other.

So which variants do you actually need to worry about? Here is your cheat sheet to every variant on the WHO and CDC watchlists right now.

Variants of Concern:

Variants of Interest:

This story is developing. We will update it as new information becomes available.