Sample Research Paper: What are the COVID-19 variants?

Research PaperHealth
Jan 13, 2022

After the COVID-19 virus or SARS-Cov-2 was first detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019, it did not take long for the virus to spread to other countries and, eventually, all over the globe. Despite efforts by governments and international organizations to curb the virus through local lockdowns, quarantines, and vaccines developed by different manufacturers , the pandemic continued to keep a tight hold on most of the world. As of January 2022, there are numerous variants of SARS-Cov-2 that have been identified by experts, however, not all of them were reported to the public. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified the variants, and has chosen to raise awareness only on the most concerning variants, which will also be discussed in this custom research paper—the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron variants.

 How Variants Emerge From Viruses

Viruses are a collection of genetic code that is covered by a protein coat (National Human Genome Research Institute, n.d.). Viruses replicate by infecting cells and then using their components to make copies of themselves. They, then, proceed to kill the host cell and damage the organism they have infected (NHGRI, n.d.). Certain types of viruses, particularly RNA-based ones like the SARS-CoV-2, are more prone to mutations because their error correction mechanism is not as thorough as DNA-based ones (McNeil, 2021). Mutations occur in viruses when it makes the wrong pairing in its base proteins. These wrong pairings change the coding of the virus, thereby becoming a mutation. If the mutation transmits the virus at the same rate or at a better rate than the original virus, the mutation may continue to exist alongside the original virus or become dominant (McNeil, 2021). However, Gaglia also explains that mutations could also impair the virus if there are too many of them (McNeil, 2021). In the case of the COVID-19 virus, it has had a number of variants that were all found to be transmissible at higher rates.

What are the different variants of COVID-19?

The Variants of COVID-19

COVID-19 is not, by any means, the first coronavirus experienced in the modern world. In 2003, thousands of people were infected with the SARS, while in 2012 the MERS-CoV threatened to become a pandemic in 2012. Both of these viruses are coronaviruses just like COVID-19, which means that they evolved from a type of common human coronavirus (CDC, 2020).   

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is one of the types of viruses that seems to continuously evolve. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), some of the changes in the virus have little to no consequences on its properties (2022). However, the organization has created a system for classifying different variants that are believed to pose a risk to public health to make information dissemination easier and avoid cases of misinformation of the public. They have created the following classifications: variants being monitored (VBM), for variants that are associated with severe disease or high transmission levels but are circulating at low levels or no longer detected; variant of interest (VOI), for variants whose genetic markers are associated with changes in transmission, diagnostics, and affect the efficacy of treatments; variant of concern (VOC), for variants with evidence of an increase in transmission rates, severity of disease, diagnostic detection failures, and reduced effectiveness of treatments; and variant of high consequence (VOHC), which are for variants with clear evidence to have serious consequences on prevention measures and efficacy of treatments.

Currently, most variants are under VBM. These are Epsilon, Iota, Kappa, B.1.617.3, Zeta, and Mu. However, the more well-known variants—Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron—fall under Variants of Concern (VOC). For variants classified under VBM, not much information is provided since they are not of major concern to the public. The focus of this research paper, thus, will be on the four variants classified under Variants of Concern. 

Alpha

The variant Alpha (B.1.1.7) was first discovered in Great Britain in November 2020. The B.1.1.7 has a European lineage and was believed to be 30% to 50% infectious than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus (“Lineage List, n.d.; Katella, 2021). The Alpha strain was found to be more severe than the original strain as it is capable of sending infected individuals to hospitals. With that said, certain manufacturers—Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson—claim that their vaccines are capable of inhibiting the severity of this variant (Katella, 2021). Immediately after its discovery, the Alpha variant appeared around the world and momentarily became the dominant strain (Katella, 2021). The Alpha variant, however, was almost immediately overshadowed by the much more contagious and severe Delta strain.

Beta3

The Beta variant (B.1.351) was first detected in South Africa in September 2020. This strain was found commonly in South Africa, Philippines, United States of America, Sweden, and Germany (“Lineage List,” n.d.). This variant is classified as VOC because authorities are concerned with its “several mutations and potential to evade antibodies” (Katella, 2021, “Beta”). Beta is found to be 50% more infectious than the original coronavirus and is more likely to lead to hospitalization and death (Katella, 2021).

The COVID-19 variants are: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron.

Gamma

The Gamma variant (P.1), which was first detected in Brazil in October 2020. The variant was also found by Japanese officials in four Brazilian travelers in the same year. Experts are also concerned with this variant’s various mutations. Studies of the variant showed that it is more infectious than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain due to its mutation allowing it to bind more easily to human cells (Le Page & Hambly, 2021). Another concerning mutation is its ability to evade antibodies that have been generated from previous infections. This mutation potentially makes treatments based on antibody drugs less effective against the Gamma variant. 

Delta

The Delta variant (B.1.617.2) is one of the more widely publicized variants, primarily due to its increased infectiousness. The said variant is believed to be twice as infectious as other variants. The Delta variant was first discovered in India in 2020 where it caused an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 infections (Katella, 2021). Furthermore, this variant is also capable of causing severe disease, causing hospitalizations and deaths, particularly in unvaccinated individuals (CDC, 2021; Katella, 2021). Although this variant is more infectious and severe than others, vaccines are effective against severe disease and death. Booster shots are recommended to help curb the transmission of this variant, however (University of Utah Health Communications [UUHC], 2021).

The Delta variant also has a few mutations, the most prominent of which is Delta AY.4.2. This is considered an “offshoot” of the Delta variant and is not considered a variant in itself (Katella, 2021). The Delta AY.4.2 is 10% to 20% more contagious than the Delta variant but does not appear to cause higher chances of hospitalization or death.

Omicron

Omicron (B.1.1.529) is another variant first detected in South Africa and Botswana (Katella, 2021). It was first identified in November 2021. According to experts, the Omicron variant carries a variety of mutations, but it is not clear how these mutations affect the strain (Katella, 2021). Nevertheless, the variant is currently the predominant strain, being more transmissible than the Delta variant. The actual severity of the Omicron variant is not yet clear, however, most cases detected were mild and did not require hospitalizations. Moreover, data seems to point that vaccines are not as effective against the Omicron variant since infected individuals include fully vaccinated ones. It is believed that the vaccines were able to inhibit the severity of the disease. Nevertheless, experts are developing vaccines that are targeted to the Omicron variant. 

Conclusion

The COVID-19 virus that took the world by surprise some years ago continues to evolve and take precedence in the world’s current affairs. In the last two years, it has wreaked havoc on worldwide economy in addition to people’s personal lives and routines. As explained in the research paper, the COVID-19 has mutated and produced numerous variants, but authorities are currently focusing on a few variants of concern. The variants Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron are the ones labeled variants of concern or VOC. They are the ones that caused a surge in certain regions of the world or are the current predominant variants, as with the Omicron variant. Meanwhile, the less concerning variants, classified under variants being monitored (VBM), are continuously monitored by experts—Epsilon, Iota, Kappa, B.1.617.3, Zeta, and Mu. 

With the seemingly continuous emergence of new COVID-19 variants, it is important to maintain ample dissemination of information to the public. Information about the variants’ nature and characteristics is significant along with reminders or updates on how the public can protect themselves from infection and how they can take care of themselves in the event of illness.


References

University of Utah Health Communications. (2021, December 1). Understanding Omicron and other COVID-19 variants. University of Utah Health. https://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2021/01/covid19-variants.php

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020, February 15). Human Coronavirus Types. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/types.html 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021, December 13). What you need to know about variants. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/about-variants.html

Katella, K. (2021, December 20). Omicron, Delta, Alpha, and more: What to know about the Coronavirus variants. Yale Medicine. https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/covid-19-variants-of-concern-omicron

Le Page, M. and Hambly, M. (2021, September 8). Gamma COVID-19 variant (P.1). New Scientist. https://www.newscientist.com/definition/brazil-covid-19-variant-p-1/

McNeil, T. (2021, June 9). How viruses mutate and create new variants. Tufts Now. https://now.tufts.edu/articles/how-viruses-mutate-and-create-new-variants 

National Human Genome Research Institute. (n.d.) Virus. Genome.gov. https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Virus  

World Health Organization (WHO). (2022, January 4). Tracking SARS-CoV-2 variants.  https://www.who.int/en/activities/tracking-SARS-CoV-2-variants/ 

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