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
- HV.1, JN.1: Variants to watch this fall and how we’re tracking themAs winter approaches, pretty much every public health expert I follow is anticipating a COVID-19 surge. The size and severity of that surge may depend in part on SARS-CoV-2 variants. As a result, experts are closely watching a few current variants that might lead to faster COVID-19 spread this winter. Here’s a review of what’s circulating right now, what to watch for in the coming weeks, and how our public health system is tracking the variants.
- National numbers, September 17For the second week in a row, available data suggest that the current COVID-19 surge may be turning around, or at least heading for a plateau. But there’s still a lot of coronavirus going around—and this will likely remain true through the winter respiratory virus season.
- New data on BA.2.86 suggest the fall booster may work wellSince BA.2.86 emerged a couple of weeks ago, scientists around the world have been racing to evaluate this variant. Several teams posted data in the last week, and the news is promising: while BA.2.86 does have an advantage over past variants, the lab findings suggest that vaccines (including the upcoming boosters) and past infections provide protection against it.
- Wastewater surveillance is crucial for tracking new variants, BA.2.86 shows usThis week, the health department in New York City, where I live, announced that they’d identified new variant BA.2.86 in the city’s wastewater. I covered the news for local outlet Gothamist/WNYC, and the story got me thinking about how important wastewater surveillance has become for tracking variants.
- Variant Q&A: Why scientists are concerned about BA.2.86, and which questions they’re still investigatingLast week, I introduced you to BA.2.86, a new Omicron variant that’s garnered attention among COVID-19 experts due to its significant mutations. We’ve learned a lot about BA.2.86 since last Sunday, though there are many unanswered questions to be answered as more research is conducted.