Mu joins gamma, delta, lambda – here’s your guide to the Greek alphabet of the COVID-19 variants

Mu joins gamma, delta, lambda – here’s your guide to the Greek alphabet of the COVID-19 variants
·4 min read

First, many called it simply the coronavirus, then COVID or COVID-19.

Now, we are keeping track of descriptors like alpha, beta and gamma, the variants of COVID-19. The World Health Organization created this naming system to make them easier to publicly discuss. Mu is the latest variant of interest to be noted by the WHO.

The Illinois Department of Public Health lists COVID-19 variants of concern. As of their recent data from Sept. 1, the original alpha still accounts for the majority of cases, with 7,059 of the total 14,417 cases. Next up are the four delta strains with 4,568 cases, followed by 2,678 gamma cases and 112 beta variant cases.

Viruses are constantly changing through mutation, which results in new variants, something scientists expect to monitor.

The state health department notes that scientists are still working to learn more about the characteristics of these variants, such as whether they could cause more severe illness and how vaccines might protect against them.

The variants listed by IDPH seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, according to the health department, which may lead to more cases of the virus. So far, studies suggest antibodies through vaccination recognize these variants; more research is underway. A new study suggested the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is less effective against the delta and lambda variants; these findings were at odds with those from other smaller studies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does have a category for variants of high consequence, which it categorizes as demonstrated failure of diagnostics and a significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness or disproportionately high number of breakthrough cases. So far, no variant has reached this level.

Still unknown is how widely the variants have spread, and how disease symptoms might differ with these new variants.

You can monitor the World Health Organization’s regularly updated list of variants here.

Below, we’ve collected information on what you should know, listing each variant by its Greek name.

Alpha

First identified in the United Kingdom, and later found in the U.S. in December 2020, alpha is considered a variant of concern by the CDC, which noted it might have increased severity based on hospitalization and fatality rates.

Beta

First identified in South Africa, this was detected in the U.S. at the end of January 2021. This is also considered a variant of concern by the CDC.

Delta

First noted in India before being detected in the U.S. in March 2021, the CDC notes this variant of concern’s increased transmissibility. Researchers are watching the delta variant carefully as it continues to spread.

Dr. Emily Landon, chief health care epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, said recently that the delta variant is “even more contagious than the alpha variant,” but state vaccination efforts should keep spread limited.

Delta plus

What’s been referred to as “delta plus” is getting buzz. This has been reportedly detected in South Korea, India and the United States, and some believe it may be more transmissible than the original delta variant. Experts are watching and waiting, but some note it hasn’t yet gained momentum here. Also known as AY.1, it is included under the World Health Organization’s list of variants of concern.

Gamma

Brazil was the first place this was detected, and it’s also been recorded in Japan. The CDC considers the gamma a variant of concern; it was first detected in the U.S. in January 2021.

Epsilon

Although the Epsilon variant is included on the state health department’s website, a spokeswoman said it would be soon taken off the “variants of concern” list as it is not considered one by the CDC. The CDC lists the Epsilon variant, which includes multiple mutations, as a variant of interest.

Eta

The World Health Organization and CDC defines this as a variant of interest and noted it has been documented in multiple countries.

Iota

The WHO and CDC consider this a variant of interest. It was documented earliest in the U.S.; according to the CDC, the first detection was in New York.

Kappa

This is also a variant of interest according to the WHO and CDC, with its earliest documentation in India in October 2020.

Lambda

Initially spreading in Peru in December 2020, the lambda variant has so far been found in states including Texas and South Carolina. It is considered a variant of interest by the World Health Organization.

Mu

Initially documented in Colombia in January 2021. the World Health Organization added this as a variant of interest on Aug. 30. The agency wrote in this report that Mu “has a constellation of mutations that indicate potential properties of immune escape.” This new variant has been confirmed in 39 countries.

abowen@chicagotribune.com

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