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

  • More Omicron mutation in South Africa and the U.S.
    As cases rise in the U.S. and other parts of the world, Omicron subvariants are a continued culprit. Experts are watching closely to see if further mutations of the virus may become even more contagious, or may gain the ability to evade immunity from prior infections and vaccinations.
  • How one wastewater plant became a leading COVID-19 forecasting source
    This week, I had a new story published with FiveThirtyEight and the Documenting COVID-19 project about the data and implementation challenges of wastewater surveillance. As bonus material in today’s COVID-19 Data Dispatch, I wanted to share one of the interviews I did for the story, which provides a good case study of the benefits and challenges of COVID-19 surveillance in wastewater.
  • National numbers, April 24
    After weeks of me warning about it, a BA.2 surge is upon us. Nationwide, new COVID-19 cases have gone up for the third week in a row; we’ve seen a 68% increase since the last week of March.
  • Omicron keeps mutating as U.S. cases rise
    As though it’s not already confusing enough to distinguish between Omicron BA.1 and BA.2, more sublineages have popped up in recent weeks as Omicron continues to spread and mutate. Here are two that I’m watching, though they don’t seem to be major causes for concern at this time.
  • The US still doesn’t have the data we need to make informed decisions on booster shots
    Last fall, I wrote that the U.S. did not have the data we needed to make informed decisions about booster shots. Several months later, we still don’t have the data we need, as questions about a potential BA.2 wave and other future variants abound. Discussions at a recent FDA advisory committee meeting made these data gaps clear.

Leave a Reply