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All viruses can change over time – including coronavirus – which can lead to different strains and variants.
The different variants have tiny changes to their genetic sequence – some of which make the virus more likely to spread quickly.
These are known as "variants of concern", a term coined by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Here we explain the four main viruses of concern – including the strains first detected in the UK (also known as the Kent strain), South Africa, Brazil and India.
We also share the names of some other variants present around the world, also known as "variants of interest".
The Alpha, also known as B.1.1.7, is the variant of Covid first discovered in Kent in September 2020.
This mutation was linked to a sharp increase in cases in the UK in early 2021, leading to another national lockdown.
It then became a dominant strain, and studies suggested it was linked to a higher chance of hospitalisation than the original Covid strain.
The Beta variant, also known as B.1.351, was first detected in South Africa – and is also now present in the UK.
It is not believed to be more deadly, but can spread more quickly than the initial strain.
The South African variant prompted surge testing and enhanced contact tracing in the UK after clusters that were not linked to travel were detected in January.
The Delta strain, also known as B.1.617.2, first appeared in India in October 2020.
The strain was contributing to a sharp increase in Covid cases in India, and on May 6 2021, it was flagged as a "variant of concern" by Public Health England (PHE).
It is now believed to be the dominant strain in the UK, accounting for more than 90% of new Covid-19 cases.
According to research from PHE, the Delta variant is around 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant.
It may also be linked with a higher risk of hospitalisation.
Gamma, also known as the Brazilian variant, was first detected in Japan, in travellers from Brazil.
It was listed as a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation, and was responsible for a surge in cases in Brazil.
The strain is also known as P1, and was first detected in November 2020.
The Gamma variant is believed to be twice as contagious as the original coronavirus.
What other variants are there?
As well as variants of concern, there are also "variants of interest".
They are Epsilon (B.1.427/B.1.429), which was first detected on March 5 and is common in California.
The Zeta (P2) variant was identified as a variant of interest later in March, and was discovered in Brazil in April 2020.
Eta (B.1.525) was first discovered in Nigeria, but has since spread to several other countries.
The Theta variant (P.3) was first identified in the Philippines in January 2021.
Iota (B.1.526) was first detected in New York, and was identified as a variant of interest in March.
Meanwhile, Kappa (B.1.617), was first detected in India in October, and was classified as a variant of interest in April.
Other variants include "Delta plus", also known as the Nepal variant".
Early data shows that this new lineage (B.1.617.2.1) allows the Covid virus to better resist antibody treatments because it includes the K417N mutation – first found in the Beta variant.
The UK has 36 cases of the new variant with the majority affecting younger individuals, according to PHE.
More recently, experts in Russia have expressed worry for a new "Moscow strain".
Health officials have not yet released any details of the potential variant, but experts in Russia believe it's behind a rise in Covid cases, The Sun reports.
- World Health Organisation
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