• The Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is spreading across the world.
  • For scientists, it’s a constant battle to keep up with new mutations.
  • Here’s how they detect new strains in a bid to keep ahead of the virus.

They are virus detectives, a global network of government scientists and academics searching for new strains of COVID-19, like the rapidly spreading Delta variant.

So how do scientists identify and track new virus variants as they arise?

Viruses are microscopic parasites that can’t survive for long outside the body of a host animal. As living organisms, they are much smaller than bacteria – the polio virus, for example, is 10,000 times smaller than a grain of salt.

But they do have their own DNA or RNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid and Ribonucleic acid), the building blocks of life.

This allows them to mutate into new forms. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, scientists have so far identified four variants that have been classified as being of concern because they spread more easily, are more virulent or resistant to vaccines.

How was the Alpha variant discovered?

The UK or Alpha variant of the COVID-19 virus was first seen in Kent, southeast England, in September 2020. Dr Meera Chand was one of the epidemiologists monitoring the situation. “We immediately knew we had found something very concerning,” she said in a post on the Public Health England website.

“Normally when you’re looking at samples you would expect to see lots of small clusters made up of multiple strains that are all slightly different. But when we looked at Kent, we saw about 50% of the samples were extremely similar, forming one massive cluster.”

So a team including specialists was quickly assembled to study the characteristics of the Kent samples. But they had a problem. Not enough samples had undergone full genome sequencing.

Scientists work at a laboratory where they sequence the novel coronavirus genomes at COVID-19 Genomics UK, on the Wellcome Sanger Institute's 55-acre campus south of Cambridge, Britain March 12, 2021. Picture taken March 12, 2021.  REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
A scientist works on sequencing the genome of a COVID-19 variant at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Cambridge, UK.
Image: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Help came from an unexpected quarter. Staff at local ‘lighthouse’ labs, where thousands of samples a day are tested, noticed a problem. Their tests were failing to pick up a gene which they expected to see. In fact, the missing gene turned out to be characteristic of the new variant.

“Initially they thought there was an issue with the test. It wasn’t working, and the rate at which it wasn’t working was increasing very steeply,” said Dr Chand. “Identifying cases through the lighthouse labs was a huge leap ahead.”

Not least because whole genome sequencing takes time, and it quickly became clear that the new variant was spreading rapidly.

Are all mutations dangerous?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines mutations as “changes in the genetic code of a virus that naturally occur over time when an animal or person is infected”.

“Most of the genetic changes we see in this virus are like the scars people accumulate over a lifetime – incidental marks of the road, most of which have no great significance or functional role,” says Professor Stuart Ray of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“When the evidence is strong enough that a viral genetic change is causing a change in the behaviour of the virus, we gain new insight regarding how this virus works.”

a chart showing the prevalence of the delta variant
The delta variant makes up 96% of COVID infections in the uk.
Image: Statista

Do vaccines protect against variants?

“The good news is that all of the WHO emergency use-listed vaccines do protect against developing severe disease, hospitalization and death due to the Delta variant,” said Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, on 1 July.

Speaking in a WHO video briefing, Dr Swaminathan added: “There are studies now from countries where there is a predominance of Delta variant to show that people who’ve been vaccinated are much less likely to end up in hospital. And you need the full course of vaccination in order to give you that full immunity to protect you against the Delta variant.”

The World Economic Forum has set up the COVID Action Platform to coordinate the efforts of business and other stakeholders to minimize the impact of the pandemic on public health and limit its potential for further disruption to lives and economies around the world.

The Forum is also using its UPLINK innovation crowdsourcing platform to generate new ideas for actionable, scalable solutions to the challenges posed by COVID-19, including an artificial intelligence app to monitor COVID-19 infections remotely.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.