During a pandemic it is common for variants to emerge, as the global COVID-19 outbreak has shown.
The latest to circulate, the so-called mu variant, is causing isolated infections in South America, Europe and the US. Meanwhile, delta variants, including delta plus, continue to produce “offspring.” What does a new variant mean for efforts to mitigate the disease spread around the globe?
The mu variant has been detected in 39 countries and, according to the World Health Organization, “has a constellation of mutations that indicate potential properties of immune escape.”
Research has shown that these mutations may help mu evade immunity defenses, which could give the virus an advantage over delta plus as immunity rises though 2021.
According to WHO, preliminary data suggests the mu variant may evade immune defenses in a similar way to the earlier beta variant found in South Africa. Again, the issue of time of discovery, placement on a WHO watch list for further examination and vaccine requirements on the ground are complex.
Mu’s appearance in January 2021 in Colombia followed the discovery of other mutations, such as the lambda variant, in Latin America. These all fall under the delta strain of the pathogen. The appearance of variants in that region has provided unique insights into how government and healthcare systems interact within the context of vaccine distribution.
Seven months can make a major difference in terms of the attention devoted to an emerging variant. International awareness of mu grew in July 2021, with UK health authorities adding it to the list of variants under investigation.
The following month WHO listed mu as a “variant of interest” over concerns that the delta-type mutation might make vaccines and treatments less effective. Research shows that scientists are monitoring emerging COVID-19 variants based on suspicious genetic changes that lead to more infectious pathogens or cause more severe illness.
Viruses evolve constantly and many new variants often fade away. Luckily, the mu variant does not appear to be spreading quickly and accounts for less than 1 percent of COVID-19 cases globally. But in Colombia the figure might be as high as 39 percent. Most countries are still concerned about the highly contagious delta variant, the dominant variant in over 174 countries.
Mu in the US appears to be concentrated in California. The identification of the variant highlights the need for people to protect themselves and others from disease spread by getting vaccinated. Inoculation breaks the chain of transmission, and limits coronavirus proliferation and the threat of mutation — a lesson that should have been learned back in March 2020.
Amid today’s turmoil in many regions, civil conflict and inequality help to spread the pathogen in what becomes a race against time. One researcher has suggested that the virus window with variant chains could well last another three or four years because of the varying protocols being implemented across country and state jurisdictions.
There is no doubt that people are suffering from “pandemic fatigue,” and that anger is rising amid disputes over protocols that continue to be a source of division around the globe. Meanwhile, delta plus is ravaging some populations, leading to a retreat in the easing of restrictions.
So long as the unvaccinated continue their “resistance,” the mu variant will not be the last. As the virus makes its way through the Greek alphabet — alpha, beta, gamma and beyond — some are asking: Are we going to run out Greek letters?