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, May 28The COVID-19 plateau continues, with hospital admissions and viral levels in wastewater (the two main metrics I’m looking at these days) both trending slightly down at the national level. Newer Omicron variants are still on the rise, but don’t seem to be impacting transmission much yet.
- National numbers, May 14COVID-19 spread continues to trend down in the U.S., though our data for tracking this disease is now worse than ever thanks to the end of the federal public health emergency. If newer Omicron variants cause a surge this summer, those increases will be hard to spot.
- The federal public health emergency ends next week: What you should knowWe’re now less than one week out from May 11, when the federal public health emergency (or PHE) for COVID-19 will end. While this change doesn’t actually signify that COVID-19 is no longer worth worrying about, it marks a major shift in how U.S. governments will respond to the ongoing pandemic, including how the disease is tracked and what public services are available. Here’s all the key info you should know about this, in one place.
- National numbers, April 23Across the U.S., COVID-19 spread continues at a moderately high plateau as newer versions of Omicron compete with XBB.1.5. Officially-reported cases and new hospitalizations declined by 7% and 8% respectively, compared to the prior week.
- National numbers, April 16COVID-19 spread appears to be at a continued plateau nationally, with slight declines in cases, hospitalizations, and viral concentrations in wastewater. New variants are on the horizon, though, at a time when data are becoming increasingly less reliable.