Current Variants of Concern 

What do we know about the ‘alpha’ variant?

The variant now known as the ‘alpha’ variant (or VOC-20DEC-01; formerly VOC202012/01) was initially detected in December 2020.  Changes in this variant of the virus have resulted in it being able to spread more easily between people.  This was discovered after evidence showed infection rates in areas affected by this variant had increased faster than expected, despite the usual control measures being in place.  For this reason, the variant was allocated a ‘Variant of Concern’.

What do we know about the ‘beta’ variant?

The ‘beta’ variant was first identified in December 2020 and this has also been classified as a ‘variant of concern’ (also known as ‘VOC-20DEC-02’ (formerly VOC202012/02). It has been observed in a number of countries & remains a ‘variant of concern’ due to its potential to reduce the protection from previous COVID-19 infection or from the COVID-19 vaccines. The country of origin has been on Northern Ireland’s ‘Red List’ and additional investigation and contact tracing is completed on anyone who is found to have this variant strain of COVID-19.

What do we know about the ‘gamma’ variant?

 The ‘gamma’ variant of concern was initially detected in January 2021 (also known as ‘VOC-21JAN-02’; formerly VOC202101/02).

This particular ‘variant of concern’ shares some of the same mutations seen in the beta variant  - ‘VOC-20DEC-02’. For this reason, additional investigations & monitoring are in place to ensure extensive follow up in all individuals who test positive for this variant. These measures may also include additional testing.

What do we know about the ‘delta’ variant?

On April 1 a variant called VUI-21APR-01 (B.1.617.1), was added as a variant under investigation (VUI).  Two similar variants were then discovered (VUI-21APR-02 and VUI-21APR-03) and these were also classified as variants under investigation on 27th April.  All of these variants remain under careful investigation.

On 6th May, the VUI-21APR-02 variant was reclassified as a Variant Of Concern (VOC) following a rise in cases and evidence of community spread in England. This variant is now known as the Delta variant (or VOC-21APR-02).  

What do we know about the ‘omicron’ variant?

On November 26 2021 the World Health Organisation (WHO) designated the B.1.1.529 a variant of concern, also known as the ‘Omicron’ variant.

This is the most recent variant to be detected and was first identified in South Africa in November 2021.

It is not clear whether Omicron spreads more easily compared to other known variants (above), it is also unclear at present if infection with the Omicron variant causes more severe disease, studies are ongoing regarding this. The WHO is working to understanding the potential impact on currently available vaccines.

The WHO has advised individuals continue to adhere to the public health measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 such as getting vaccinated, maintaining social distance, wearing a well-fitting face covering, maintaining adequate ventilation when indoors, avoid poorly ventilated or crowded areas and wash your hands well and frequently.

Further research is ongoing with the aim of better understanding the impact of these variants.