New variant names from the WHO

B.1.1.7. B.1.351. P1. B.1.671.2. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants with names as inscrutable as these.

But thankfully, we finally have a straightforward naming system: on May 31, the WHO announced a system using letters of the Greek alphabet. B.1.1.7 (first identified in the U.K. is now Alpha, B.1.351 (first identified in South Africa) is now Beta, and so on. You can find the complete list (so far) here. While there are an innumerable amount of SARS-CoV-2 variants, so far the WHO naming system only applies to “variants of concern” and “variants of interest.”

While there have been non-place-related names for these variants for a while, colloquially they have been called things like “the U.K. variant” and “the South African variant” because most people won’t just toss “B.1.1.7” around in conversation. (I tried, and no one knew what I was talking about.) However, this is problematic for a few reasons. First, we don’t know for sure that B.1.1.7. originated in the United Kingdom — that’s just where they found it first. And for other countries, naming a coronavirus variant after them associates a dangerous stigma with that country (like how nicknaming the coronavirus “the China virus” earlier in the pandemic contributed to a rise in anti-Asian hate). According to WHO coronavirus lead Maria Van Kerkhove in an interview with STAT News, a country will be more likely to report a variant if the name of the variant will not be associated with the country name. 

The WHO naming system is nice for now, but it’s not clear if it’ll catch on and become the norm or if it’ll just be yet another naming system in a crowded patchwork. It’s also unclear what will happen if we run out of Greek letters, but we certainly hope it doesn’t come to that. (Making this yet another reason to vaccinate the world.)

More variant data

  • National numbers, November 20
    Nationwide, reported COVID-19 cases and new hospital admissions are still in a plateau; both metrics declined very slightly this week after rising slightly last week (declining by 3% and 1%, respectively).
  • National numbers, November 13
    We are beginning to see the impacts of colder weather and new variants this week, as both official COVID-19 cases and new hospital admissions went up slightly: increasing by 6% and 5% from the prior week, respectively. Wastewater monitoring similarly shows an uptick in coronavirus transmission at the national level, according to Biobot’s dashboard. The Northeast still has the highest virus concentration, but other regions of the country are catching up.
  • How testing international travelers helps the CDC keep tabs on new variants
    Last month, the CDC started publishing data from a surveillance program focused on international travelers coming into the U.S. I talked to bioinformatics experts involved with the program to learn more about how it works.
  • National numbers, November 6
    Continuing a trend from the last few weeks, nationwide COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are still at plateaus or trending very slightly downward. We aren’t clearly in a fall surge yet, but concerning newer Omicron subvariants are rising—along with other respiratory diseases.
  • National numbers, October 30
    The national COVID-19 picture continues to be somewhat murky, thanks in part to poor-quality data. Both nationwide cases and new hospital admissions trended slightly upward in the last week (by 2% and 1%, respectively); this could reflect the beginnings of fall surges in some places, but it’s hard to say for sure.

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