Story at a glance

  • The delta variant is the dominant form of the coronavirus causing COVID-19 in the U.S.
  • A mutation of the delta variant called delta plus has also been circulating in the U.K. and around the world.
  • Vaccine makers are preparing to have to adjust for an “escape variant.”

Earlier this year, there was the alpha variant that was spreading rapidly in the U.K. and the U.S. But by the beginning of spring and summer the delta variant became the dominant version of the coronavirus in the U.S. and many other places around the world. Currently, the delta variant remains the dominant version but there may be other mutations and subsets of the delta variant on the rise.

In recent months, a mutated version of the delta variant has been spreading slowly in the U.K. called the delta plus variant, also known as AY.4.2. It has been reported in the U.S. but at lower rates and mainly in California. The substrain does not seem to be spreading as quickly as the original delta variant. “This is nothing like that, but still worth keeping an eye on,” Hanage said in an email to The Washington Post. He adds, “We’d have to be idiots to think the virus is done with us, and it will continue to evolve.”

Viruses naturally acquire and lose mutations over time and generations of replication. For a viral pathogen that is circulating in a population, different changes could determine how well it spreads. However, it’ll be hard to guess which variant could be the next major “variant of concern,” and perhaps that’s not the important part. “You can’t predict the future — biology is too complicated. No one should even try,” says Joel O. Wertheim, who is a biologist at the University of California at San Diego who studies viral evolution, to the Post.

Experts tend to think that the next big variant will be derived from the delta variant. “It is very likely that the next variant will be a daughter of delta, and it may emerge anywhere,” says Vaughn S. Cooper, who studies microbial evolution at the University of Pittsburgh, to the Post.


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Delta plus has been found in the U.K. as well as other countries like Russia, where there currently is a surge in cases. According to data from Wellcome Sanger Institute reported by The Guardian, this variant now makes up 10 percent of delta variant sequences in the U.K. Recently, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has put the delta plus in the "variant under investigation" category, according to the BBC. Public health officials there are concerned that it may spread more easily than the original delta variant, but currently do not think it causes more severe illness.

Vaccine makers are preparing to have to adjust their vaccines for new variants of the coronavirus, although this hasn’t been deemed necessary yet. The chief executive of Pfizer says at a press conference that when an “escape variant” emerges they would be able to have a new version of their vaccine ready in 100 days, according to Nature.

Researchers have been testing how they would update a vaccine by practicing with existing variants. “At some point, inevitably, we’re going to have to make variant vaccines — if vaccines are the way population immunity will be maintained — but we’re not at the point where we can confidently predict the evolution of the virus,” says Paul Bieniasz, who is a virologist at the Rockefeller University in New York City, to Nature. “Practising with existing variants seems like a reasonable approach.”


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Published on Oct 23, 2021