What are the Different Coronavirus Variants and their Classifications?

By The Vault Team

Variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are emerging all over the world. Though this is not what most of us envisioned nearly two years ago, the virus is doing exactly what it’s supposed to: replicate and evolve to survive. And while most changes have little to no impact on  a virus’s properties, some mutations may cause an increased risk to public health. Key indicators include how easily the virus spreads, its associated disease severity, and how it responds to vaccines, medicines, and diagnostic tools.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been working with partners, expert networks, national authorities, and researchers in monitoring and assessing the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 since Since 2020.(1) They have since created different classifications of COVID variants to help prioritize global monitoring and research, and inform the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What are the different classifications and definitions of coronavirus variants?

There are three core classifications that the WHO uses to categorize coronavirus variants:

Variant of Concern (VOC) refers to variants in which there is evidence of:

  • increased transmissibility, more sever disease (e.g. increased hospitalizations or deaths)

  • significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination

  • reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines

Variant of Interest (VOI) refers to variants with specific genetic markers that are predicted  to affect transmission and prevalence, or other indicators of emerging risk. Multiple public health actions, such as enhanced sequence surveillance or epidemiological investigations, may be required to determine transmissibility, disease severity, and the efficacy of approved or authorized vaccines. 

Variant Under Monitoring (VUM): refers to variants that no longer meet the VOC or VOI criteria. They were at one point more likely to spread, cause reinfection, or lead to severe illness, but are no longer circulating enough to pose a significant public health risk.

How many coronavirus variants are there, and what are their classifications? 

Currently, there are no SARS-CoV-2 variants of interest, two variants of concern, and 10 variants that the U.S. government SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group (SIG) is actively monitoring.(2) This information is regularly updated by the WHO and CDC: 

  • Variants of Concern (VOCs)

    • Delta

    • Omicron

  • Variants Under Monitoring (VUMs)

    • Alpha

    • Beta

    • Gamma

    • Epsilon

    • Eta

    • Iota

    • Kappa

    • B.1.617.3

    • Mu

    • Zeta

There are likely many more variants circulating that have not met the criteria of these classifications, so public health officials aren’t especially worried about them. It is also probable that additional variants will be identified in the future as more mutations occur.

 

How Coronavirus Variants and their Classifications Inform the Ongoing Pandemic Response?

When new SARS-CoV-2 variants emerge, researchers immediately look at the risk factors that could intensify COVID-19 outbreaks and further prolong the pandemic.(3) Gaining more insights about the virus and its variance helps provide public health authorities with critical guidance on how to protect their communities.

Genome sequencing plays a huge factor here. This process essentially allows scientists to identify and decode a person’s genes. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, they can monitor how the virus changes over time and how these changes affect the characteristics of the virus. All of this information makes it possible to understand how a particular variant might impact health.(4)

COVID surveillance testing is also a highly effective -- albeit difficult -- systematic method for monitoring positive cases and outbreaks in a population or community.(5) It involves using viral tests to identify infected individuals that are also at-risk of spreading the virus. Tracking, tracing, and analyzing the data helps alert positive results to public health officials and inform what measures a community should take to prevent further spread.

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

DISCLAIMER: This article is for general information purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and is not intended to be relied upon for medical diagnosis or treatment.  If you are experiencing an emergency, dial 911 or contact a medical practitioner immediately.  Consistent with Vault Health, Inc.’s website privacy policy, Vault Health, Inc. is not responsible for the privacy practices or the content found at links to other websites.

References

  1. Tracking SARS-CoV-2 variants. (2021, May 31). World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/en/activities/tracking-SARS-CoV-2-variants/

  2. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). (2020, February 11). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/variant-classifications.html

  3. Grubaugh, N. D., Hodcroft, E. B., Fauver, J. R., Phelan, A. L., & Cevik, M. (2021). Public health actions to control new SARS-CoV-2 variants. Cell, 184(5), 1127–1132. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2021.01.044

  4. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). (2020b, February 11). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/genomic-surveillance.html

  5. Center for Devices and Radiological Health. (2021, November 15). COVID-19 Test Uses: FAQs on Testing for SARS-CoV-2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/coronavirus-covid-19-and-medical-devices/covid-19-test-uses-faqs-testing-sars-cov-2

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