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

  • Delta updates: Disease severity, kids, boosters
    A couple of major news items on Delta: it’s still highly transmissible, it might lead to more severe disease, child hospitalization rates are tied to low community vaccination, and evidence for boosters is still questionab
  • Breakthrough case reporting: Once again, outside researchers do the CDC’s job
    Now, Delta is causing the vast majority of cases—and the CDC still isn’t reporting on non-severe breakthroughs. As a result, entities outside the federal government are once again compiling data from states in order to fill in gaps left by the national public health agency. On Friday, both Bloomberg and NBC published breakthrough case analyses.
  • Unpacking Delta numbers from this week’s headlines
    It’s no surprise that Delta (B.1.617.2) is bad news. From the moment it was identified in India, this variant has been linked to rapid transmission and rapid case rises, even in areas where the vaccination rates are high. This week, however, the CDC’s changed mask guidance—combined with new reports on breakthrough cases associated with Delta—has triggered widespread conversation about precisely how much damage this variant can do.
  • The Delta variant is taking over the world
    The Delta variant is now dominant in the U.S., but our high vaccination rates still put us in a much better position than the rest of the world—which is facing the super-contagious variant largely unprotected.
  • Breakthrough cases: What we know right now
    While epidemiologists may consider any new outbreak a possible source of new variants, one key way to monitor the virus/variant race is by analyzing breakthrough cases—those infections that occur after someone has been fully vaccinated. Here’s how states and the CDC are tracking these cases now, and what we know about vaccine protection against the variants.

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