A new covid variant known as mu that was first detected in January in Colombia has been listed as one of five “variants of interest” by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Variants of interest are strains of SARS-CoV-2 (covid-19) that have genetic changes that are predicted or known to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity, immune escape, diagnostic or therapeutic escape,” according to the WHO.
Variants of interest fall uder the WHO’s second-highest category for measuring variants. The No. 1 WHO category of measurement is “variants of concern”.
Variants in the highest level include alpha, the initial variant, which is present in 193 countries and the delta variant, which is currently spreading uncontrollably throughout Florida and other U.S. states.
The delta variant was identified as a variant of interest on April 4 and had become a variant of concern by May 11. Not every variant moves from the “interest” list to “concern.”
Here are 3 things to know about what the WHO is investigating on the mu variant:
The mu variant has been found to possess a cluster of mutations that may make it less susceptible to the immune protection that many people have acquired.
According to the WHO weekly bulletin on the pandemic, the mu variant “has a constellation of mutations that indicate potential properties of immune escape.”
The variant may evade immune defenses in a similar way to the beta variant that was first discovered in South Africa, but this needs to be further investigated.
Scientists and public health officials are investigating the mu variant to know how easily it spreads, or the severity of the disease it causes, compared to the delta variant which is highly transmissible, especially among the unvaccinated and is present in 170 countries.
“The epidemiology of the mu variant in South America, particularly with the co-circulation of the delta variant, will be monitored for changes,” a WHO bulletin stated.
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At the moment there is no evidence that the mu variant is more transmissible than delta. At least 32 cases of the mu variant have been detected in the U.K., with the pattern of infections suggesting that it was brought by travelers on multiple occasions.
It is highly uncertain how much of a threat the mu variant poses. However, this will be determined by how fast the cases grow in the coming weeks and months, especially in the presence of the fast-spreading delta variant.
Part of the concern about mu comes from the particular mutations it carries. One genetic change called the P681H mutation is found in the alpha variant which was first detected in Kent, U.K. and has been linked to faster transmission rates.
Other mutations such as the E484K and K417N may help the virus evade immunity defenses and this could give it an advantage over delta.
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