10 things to know about COVID-19 variants

Published 2021-08-03 03:00

Delta, alpha, beta and gamma are variants of concern


Alpha, beta, gamma and delta sound like code words for astronauts, but in fact they're names for variants of the coronavirus that hit much closer to home.

Variants are mutated versions of the novel coronavirus, which is the virus that causes COVID-19.

These variants of concern spread more easily than the original virus did, which is one of the reasons why they’re making headlines in Canada this summer.

The variants are continuing to spread, even though 65 per cent of Canadians over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Of course, unvaccinated kids — who aren't yet approved for COVID-19 vaccines — can catch them, too.

Here are 10 things you need to know about the current COVID-19 variants of concern.

1. What is a variant?

When viruses like the coronavirus reproduce, they don’t make perfect copies of themselves.

Instead, the copies often include small mistakes, called mutations.

In some cases, these mutations might change how the virus spreads, how severe the symptoms are and how well the vaccines work against them.

2. What is a variant of concern?

The World Health Organization (WHO), which tracks the global spread of these COVID-19 mutations, categorizes them as either variants of interest or variants of concern.

A student in the United States gets a temperature check before going to school. Are there ways to stay safe from variants as a kid? Keep reading until the end to find out. (Image credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Variants of interest are suspected to maybe become dangerous, but more evidence is needed before they can be bumped up into the "concern" category.

According to the Centers for Disease Control in the United States, a variant becomes a concern when there is evidence of an increase in any of the following: how easily it spreads, infected people are getting sicker and when treatments, like vaccines, don’t work as well as they should.

3. Which variants are circulating now?

Currently there are four variants of concern in the world. They are alpha, beta, gamma and delta.

The four variants of interest that the WHO is watching are called eta, iota, kappa and lambda.

4. What's with the names?

Each new mutation or variant of the virus is assigned a new letter from the Greek alphabet.

In English and French we have the ABCs. The Greek alphabet includes letters you might not have heard before, like delta and lambda.

A plastic 3D model of COVID-19 is held by an engineer doing research in China. (Image credit: Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images)

5. Are variants worse than the original virus?

Not necessarily worse in all ways, just different, experts say.

No two variants are the same. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to what the WHO and local health officials are saying.

Sometimes a variant is more transmissible, meaning it can spread more easily. You don’t need to spend as much time with an infected person before you’re at risk of catching it.

But higher transmission doesn’t always mean a person will be sicker.

But what do we know about the current variants of concern? It’s unclear. Researchers are still studying them.

Is there a high risk of danger for kids infected with COVID-19 variants? So far, Dr. Jacqueline Wong, who specializes in infectious diseases, says the symptoms appear 'very mild.' (Image credit: Jane Barlow/Getty Images)

6. How sick are kids getting?

Most kids who’ve had COVID-19 so far haven’t gotten very sick. Thankfully, the same goes for kids who catch the variants of concern 一 so far.

“Children, thankfully, are still only affected very mildly,” pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Jacqueline Wong told CBC Kids News on July 12.

The Hamilton, Ontario, doctor said kids usually experience a runny nose, cough and maybe some fever, “but thankfully, we have not seen more children ending up in hospital.”

7. Is anybody protected against the variants of concern?

Even if you’ve had COVID-19 before or are vaccinated, there’s a chance you can catch a variant strain.

Chances are you won’t be as sick, or need to be hospitalized, though.

It’s true that children under 12 aren’t able to get the COVID-19 vaccines just yet.

But if more people around you are vaccinated, your risk of getting sick as a young person is lower, too.

Charles Muro, 13, celebrates being vaccinated in Hartford, Connecticut, on May 13. (Image credit: Joseph Prezioso/Getty Images)

8.  How can we stop the spread of variants this summer?

“It’s definitely more of the same old, same old” in terms of protecting yourself against variants, said Wong.

You don’t need to learn new ways of keeping safe.

“Keep that distance,” she said. “Masks work, physical distancing works, hand sanitizer works, and it's just a matter of time.”

9. Should kids be worried?

Experts don’t yet fully understand the variants of concern.

Time 一 and spread 一 will tell doctors and other health experts what specific advice to give to kids going forward.

In the meantime, Dr. Isaac Bogoch says to have a wonderful time this summer!

“I really hope everyone enjoys their summer because you deserve it. Right?”

“It's been a very challenging year with lots of school disruptions, lots of disruptions to birthday parties and family visits and hanging out with friends and stuff like that,” said the infectious disease specialist based in Toronto, Ontario.

“Things are getting better and that's wonderful to see,” he told CBC Kids News.

10. What’s next for the variants?

Variants will continue to pop up because we are still in a pandemic, and not everyone is vaccinated or has an equal chance of getting the vaccine, said Wong.

Much like we are offered a yearly flu vaccine, COVID-19 vaccinations might require a booster shot each year for extra protection from variants.


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