Over the Past 2.5 Years You’ve No Doubt Become Familiar With the COVID Variant Names: Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron. They’re All Variants of the Original COVID-19 Virus (called SARS-CoV-2). Get Wise Below About Why These COVID-19 Variants Formed and How They’re Named.

Laying the Groundwork: Why Variants Exist

The goal of viruses is to survive no matter what. In order to survive, viruses mutate, meaning they change their shape OR their outer coating to make it easier for them to evade our immune systems, our vaccines, and our treatments. All viruses mutate, but they do so at different rates.

When viruses acquire enough mutations, they create variants (slight variations of the same virus). These variants hope to become stronger and more powerful than their predecessors. They can achieve this by becoming more contagious (I’m looking at you Delta and Omicron) or more virulent (i.e. more deadly), or both. Fortunately, we haven’t had a more deadly COVID-19 variant yet, just more contagious ones.

Caveat: When a virus is more contagious, it infects more people and, can therefore, become more deadly overall. That being said, no COVID variant has proven to be more deadly per person infected (which is a relief).

Note: When a variant is found to have new “biologic capabilities,” it’s upgraded to a “strain.” All strains are variants, but not all variants are strains (because they don’t always behave that differently from the original virus). Don’t worry about the terminology though. I’m only mentioning it because you may see the words variant and strain used (almost interchangeably) in the news.

Here’s a Quick Breakdown of the Main COVID-19 Variants That We’ve Seen Thus Far.

First Came SARS-CoV-2…

SARS-CoV-2 (the abbreviated name of “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”) was the original (parent) virus responsible for COVID-19.

SARS-CoV-2 is thought to have jumped from an animal (think: maybe bats at a wet market in China) to a human in 2019. SARS-CoV-2 hung around in its original form for a while, and then began to mutate slowly. Experts think it mutated slowly because humans didn’t really have any immunity against it, so it was doing quite well (from an evolutionary standpoint) without having to change form.

And The Rest Followed

As we built up our collective immunity against COVID-19 (by getting infected with COVID, and, later, by getting vaccinated against it), the COVID-19 virus started to feel an evolutionary pressure to change and shape-shift. This resulted in the Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron variants (and the Omicron subvariants, BA.4, BA.5, BQ.1.1., and XBB.1.5).

PediaTrivia: A Word About How the COVID-19 Variants (and Subvariants) Are Named.

At first, the COVID-19 variants were named after their location of origin. For example, the Omicron variant was initially called the “South African” variant (since it was first identified in Botswana & South Africa in late November 2021). A decision was made, though, to change the nomenclature process, and now the variants are named after the Greek letters of the alphabet (think: alpha, delta, beta, and omicron).

Why the Change? To reduce any potential stigmatization of the countries where the variants came from.

More PediaTrivia:

  • Delta is the 4th letter of the Greek alphabet.
  • Omicron is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. It means little “O” (vs. omega, which means big “O”). It does NOT mean “end of time”-an idea that was (ominously) bandied about on social media.1

The Bottom Line: As new variants (and possible strains) come down the pike, more letters of the greek alphabet may become household names.

Common Question: Where Did the Other Variants Go?

They mostly got squelched as new, more powerful variants took their place. This is Darwin’s survival of the fittest in action, folks!

The Bottom Line (And What Doctors Worry About)

Although we seem to have gotten somewhat of a handle on COVID-19 through learning more about the disease, taking precautions against it (think: social distancing), and rolling out a robust vaccine program to combat it, doctors still worry about the development of variants that are more contagious, more deadly, and more vaccine-resistant than previous ones. Thankfully, this hasn’t happened yet, and will hopefully never happen.