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

  • Vaccines aren’t enough: What Biden can do about Omicron
    This past Monday, President Biden said in a speech, “We’re throwing everything we can at this virus, tracking it from every angle.” Which I, personally, found laughable. The U.S.’s anti-COVID strategy basically revolves around vaccines, and it’s not sufficient for stopping new surges.
  • Omicron updates: What we’ve learned since last week
    There is still a lot we don’t know about the Omicron variant, first identified in Botswana and South Africa in late November. Still, we’ve learned a few new things in the last week. Here’s a quick roundup.
  • Omicron variant: What we know, what we don’t, and why not to panic (yet)
    On Thanksgiving, my Twitter feed was dominated not by food photos, but by news of a novel coronavirus variant identified in South Africa earlier this week. While the variant—now called Omicron, or B.1.1.529—likely didn’t originate in South Africa, data from the country’s comprehensive surveillance system provided enough evidence to suggest that this variant could be more contagious than Delta, as well as potentially more able to evade human immune systems.
  • Reader question: How long will COVID-19 restrictions continue?
    A couple of weeks ago, I received a reader question from a friend of mine who recently got engaged! He and his fiancée are planning a wedding in summer 2023, and he asked me: “How likely do you think it is that (1) the COVID-19 pandemic remains a serious danger to our safety in the summer of 2023 and (2) the government still has the energy to keep enforcing COVID-19 restrictions?”
  • Unpacking Delta AY.4.2: Are we prepared for the next variant?
    Recently, a new offshoot of the Delta variant has been gaining ground in the U.K. It’s called AY.4.2, and it appears to be slightly more transmissible than Delta itself. While experts say this variant doesn’t differ enough from Delta to pose a serious concern, I think it’s worth exploring what we know about it so far—and what this means for the future of coronavirus mutation.

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