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What Exactly Are COVID Variants?

Over the last couple of years, the COVID-19 virus has evolved into multiple COVID variants and mutations of the virus. These variants can sometimes be more dangerous or more contagious than the original COVID virus.

The Delta variant, for example, caused more infections, spread faster, caused more severe symptoms, and had higher hospitalisation rates than the original strain of COVID-19.

The Omicron variant spread even faster than Delta, and broke records with its global impact. Omicron has been known for its high rate of transmission and its resistance to COVID vaccines. 

Although some COVID variants are weak and disappear on their own, others are more persistent variants that can persist for a long time and cause soaring numbers of new COVID cases globally. 

In order for people to better understand and monitor COVID variants, the World Health Organization (WHO) created the terms “Variants of Interest” (VOI) and “Variants of Concern” (VOC) to categorise COVID variants. VOI are COVID variants that are closely monitored due to their growing risk, while VOC is COVID variants that create a global risk.

So, what exactly are COVID variants, and why do they happen?

COVID Variant Meaning: What is a Variant?

A COVID variant is a mutated strain of the original COVID virus. A big reason why COVID vaccines can’t always ensure your safety is because of variants of the virus that are vaccine resistant. 

Variants are a cause for concern as they can be more dangerous or more severe in symptoms than the original virus. They can also be more contagious.

As far as COVID goes, the main variants are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and most recently Omicron. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts expect new variants to continue appearing.

How Are COVID Variants Different From The Original COVID Virus?

If you test positive for COVID-19, how would you be able to tell if you have COVID or one of its variants? Most people are not able to determine whether they were infected by COVID or a COVID variant based on how they feel, because COVID variants do not typically have different symptoms. However, the severity of the symptoms (and severity of the illness) can differ depending on the COVID variant. 

In other words, some variants of COVID have much worse symptoms than others, so if you feel especially sick, it could be due to a variant. In certain cases, COVID variants such as Alpha and Delta can cause more severe illness. If you feel that you are experiencing extreme COVID symptoms, you may be infected by a variant.

Some COVID variants are more easily transmissible than the original COVID strain, and can spread faster than the original strain as well. This is possible because COVID variants have mutated to become better at infecting cells and evading antibodies. 

We know that COVID variants sound like a bigger, better, and stronger version of the virus, but all hope is not lost as you can still reduce the spread of COVID and COVID variants as well as protect yourself, your loved ones, and your community.

The existing safety measures for COVID protection work to protect against COVID variants as well. These safety precautions include: 

  • Wearing a mask with a proper filter, especially when you are indoors or in crowded areas
  • Practicing social distancing 
  • Meeting outdoors and in smaller groups
  • Minimising contact with other people and surfaces
  • Refraining from touching your face
  • Washing and sanitising your hands regularly
  • Staying at home when you feel unwell
  • Getting yourself tested for COVID regularly using at-home COVID tests such as the FlowFlex Antigen Test.

Recent COVID Variants and Their Global Impact

Below is an overview of some of the COVID variants we’ve seen recently, and what their global impact has been:

Alpha (B.1.1.7)

Location of earliest documented sample: United Kingdom

Date of earliest documented sample: September 2020

Current status: VOC

The Alpha variant was the first COVID variant that caused a global impact. According to British analysis, Alpha is up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original COVID virus.

Beta (B.1.351)

Location of earliest documented sample: South Africa

Date of earliest documented sample: May 2020

Current status: VOC

The Beta variant is another COVID variant that caused a faster spread of COVID than the original virus. However, Beta was not as transmissible as Alpha and did not worsen the illness. 

Gamma (P.1)

Location of earliest documented sample: Brazil

Date of earliest documented sample: November 2020

Current status: VOC

The Gamma variant is more contagious than Alpha and Beta and is even able to affect people who already have COVID. 

Delta (B.1.617.2)

Location of earliest documented sample: India

Date of earliest documented sample: October 2020

Current status: VOC

The Delta variant is a COVID variant with one of the highest number of infections as it is responsible for more than 90 per cent of sequenced COVID infections worldwide. It is up to 50 per cent more transmissible than other variants, can worsen the illness, make you twice as likely to get hospitalised, and can cause breakthrough infections. 

Mu (B.1.621)

Location of earliest documented sample: Colombia

Date of earliest documented sample: January 2021

Current status: VOI

The Mu variant is a relatively new strain that caused a short but sharp spike of infections. It is not as dangerous as the Delta variant, but experts are still studying it closely to gather more information.

Omicron (B.1.1.529)

Location of earliest documented sample: South Africa

Date of earliest documented sample: November 2021

Current status: VOC

Omicron is the latest COVID variant that spread very rapidly, caused soaring numbers of new COVID cases, and broke records with its global impact. This heavily mutated COVID variant has 43 spike protein mutations (Delta only has 18) and is extremely contagious. It raised the global alarm because of its increased transmissibility and decreased effectiveness in vaccines and social distancing. 

Can COVID Tests Detect COVID Variants?

Not all COVID tests can detect COVID variants, but you’ll be happy to hear that the FlowFlex Rapid Antigen Test can. That’s why it’s one of only four rapid antigen tests approved by the Hong Kong government. 

Since COVID has loomed over us for over two years now, people are generally less sensitive to news of COVID and its variants. Although this type of news is still concerning, many people have realised that the best thing they can do is take safety precautions, get tested regularly, and wait for more scientific research on COVID and its variants.

Since it’s easy and accessible to get a COVID test that detects all COVID variants, this helps put people’s minds at ease when they hear of a new COVID variant.

The Bottom Line

COVID variants can seem unpredictable and scary, but as we become more knowledgeable, we are able to better understand and protect against the different variants. 

If you’re worried about the health of yourself and your loved ones when it comes to COVID variants, or anxious about a positive COVID test impacting your ability to travel, what can you do? Consider getting a portable COVID test you can use at home that detects all variants, such as the Flowflex Rapid Antigen Test distributed by Project Screen.

So far, over 6 million COVID-19 tests have been delivered by Project Screen in globally to airport staff, health professionals, and both outbound and inbound travellers.

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