BOGOTÁ—The last thing the world needs is another strain of COVID-19 to worry about, but the reality is it’s here and has already spread to 43 countries. This time, it’s from Colombia and is known as B1621 or the Mu variant, and is reported to be more resistant to vaccines and more contagious than other variants, representing a real concern in a country where only just over 29 percent of the population have been fully vaccinated.
Opinions on whether Mu will become the next strain to strafe the region and then spiral uncontrollably across the world, however, are divided.
On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified Mu as a Variant of Interest (VOI), joining the likes of Eta, Iota, Kappa and Lambda. But while recent headlines scream terror across most international media outlets, this variant is in steep decline in Colombia, having been officially discovered here eight months ago, in January 2021. For this reason, medical practitioners and epidemiologists in this South American nation have moved on to focus on other rampant variants, despite Mu representing 39 percent of cases in Colombia and 13 percent in neighboring Ecuador.
Speaking through private communication with The Daily Beast—having not been given permission to speak to a journalist—ICU doctors in several Colombian cities expressed their surprise at a recent dramatic fall in COVID-19 cases in the country. Daily death counts first started falling below 100 on August 16, and hospital units and buildings once ceded to treat virus cases have been returned to their former usages.
Still, Mu will not soon be forgotten and remains firmly in the collective memory of Colombians, having been the principal cause of the third wave of the virus in June this year. At its peak on June 21, Mu accounted for 60 percent of all contagions and fatalities in the country, resulting in an overall total of 125,000 new cases and 655 deaths in that one day alone.
Now, citizens seem to be enjoying a period of relative tranquillity. After having endured one of the world’s longest lockdowns, Colombia’s ICU occupancy presently averages only 60 percent, and bars and clubs across the country have been reopened.
But is Colombia really out of the woods yet?
“At this moment, we are crossing the eye of the tornado,” Dr. Jaime Ordonez Molina, Senior Researcher at True Consulting, told the Daily Beast. “We have passed the Mu half of the tornado and now we face the other half which is Delta. The Delta variant will force us to once again re-evaluate the whole situation, just as what is taking place in the United States and large parts of Europe, Asia and Oceania at this moment.”
All eyes, it seems, are now upon the Delta variant.
“The good news is that we are over Mu, mathematically speaking, Colombia has seen a decrease for two months and this decrease can really be noted from about 12 days ago,” said Ordonez Molina. “This confirms two things: the first is that Colombia has overcome Mu and the second is that the vaccines are working against this strain.”
The data speaks for itself, and graphs show a significant decrease in contagions just as the Colombian government lauds its successes with vaccinations and economic revival.
But still, this is no time for complacency.
“If there’s an earthquake in the United States, up there,” said Carolina Villada, spokesperson for the Colombian National Health Institute (INS)—a vital epidemiological resource for tracking COVID-19 in the country—in reference to the recent Delta explosion in the U.S. “Down here in Colombia, we receive the aftershocks in two to three months.”
If this timeline is correct, it means that the potential for an uptick in contagions and fatalities could occur in September and early October, representing a fourth peak in Colombia. And this could be worsened even further if the Mu variant is in co-circulation with the Delta variant.
“Some external observers have said that Mu doesn’t appear to possess the capacity to compete with Delta and that, in fact, analysing the data published by Colombia on Gisaid, Mu is decreasing by 11 percent day to day in relation to Delta,” Martha Ospina, director of the INS, told The Daily Beast.
While predictions cannot be made with absolute certainty—given the adaptability and mutations already experienced with COVID-19—the INS and others such as Ordonez Molina are urging people not to lower their guard.
“There are very difficult days ahead,” said Ordonez Molina, “with a strain that shows such capacity for transmission and infection and in a country with so few people fully vaccinated.”
Delta, not Mu, it seems, remains the strain to watch for in South America.