COVID-19 vaccines provide protection against the virus. However, rapidly emerging variants still cause concern. As viruses spread, their genomes can change during the replication process. This results in variants of the original forming. With COVID-19 infecting millions of people around the world, it has replicated itself billions of times. Four major COVID-19 variants have emerged in the United States.

The COVID-19 Delta Variant

The Delta variant is now the most common strain of COVID-19 in the world. Scientists first discovered it in India in 2020. By 2021, it had reached the United States. It spreads faster than the original virus. Early research indicates that it could also carry a heavier viral load. In some cases, people with the Delta variant had 1,000 times more of the virus in their respiratory systems than those infected with the original strain. People who aren’t vaccinated are more likely to be hospitalized with the Delta variant.

The COVID-19 Alpha Variant

This version is the most common variant in the United States, though the Delta variant is close to overtaking it. Scientists first identified it in the United Kingdom in November 2020. It contains more mutations than typical — at least 23. Like the Delta variant, it spreads more easily than the original COVID-19 virus. It’s almost more likely to lead to hospitalization or even death. Early research shows that vaccines are up to 93% effective against the spread of the Alpha variant.

The COVID-19 Beta Variant

The Beta variant first emerged in South Africa’s second wave of infections. During this wave, hospitalizations, severe symptoms, and deaths increased. Scientists believe the Beta variant was the cause. So far, the Beta strain isn’t spreading as quickly outside of South Africa. It accounts for roughly one percent of coronavirus cases in the United States.

The COVID-19 Gamma Variant

While the rest of the country is dealing with the Alpha and Beta variants, certain states are hotspots for the Gamma strain. In Washington State, for example, more than 20% of its infections stemmed from the Gamma variant in May 2021. It caused more serious consequences than the Delta version. According to reports, more people with the Gamma version of the coronavirus died or were hospitalized.