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When is a COVID mutation a new variant, and when is it a subvariant? And what’s a recombinant?

By Paul Griffin, Associate Professor, Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, The University of Queensland
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We’ve all become familiar with virus mutations over the course of the pandemic, and can all probably list off the COVID variants including Alpha, Delta and Omicron. But now we’re hearing more and more about subvariants, as Omicron mutates into Omicron BA.2, Omicron BA.4, Omicron XE, and more.

We know the virus is mutating as it spreads, but when is a new mutation a new variant, and when is it a subvariant? And what happens when they combine?

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