Today, it’s an actual headache to maintain tabs on the coronavirus’s ever-shifting subvariants. BA.2, BA.4, and BA.5, three Omicron permutations that rose to prominence final 12 months, have been complicated sufficient. Now, along with these, now we have to take care of BQ.1.1, BF.7, B.5.2.6, and XBB.1.5, the model of Omicron presently that includes in involved headlines. Lately, issues have additionally gotten significantly stranger. Alongside the strings of letters and numbers, a number of nicknames for these subvariants have began to achieve traction on-line. The place as soon as we had Alpha and Delta and Omicron, we now have Basilisk, Minotaur, and Hippogryph. Some folks have been referring to XBB.1.5 merely as “the Kraken.” A listing compiled on Twitter reads much less like a list of variants than just like the listing of a mythological zoo.
The nicknames are usually not official. They have been coined not by the World Well being Group however by a casual group of scientists on Twitter who consider Omicron’s many rotating varieties deserve extra widespread dialog. The names have, to an extent, caught on: Kraken has already made its manner from Twitter to a variety of main information websites, together with Bloomberg and The New York Occasions. Unofficial epithets have come and gone all through the pandemic—keep in mind “stealth Omicron” and the “Frankenstein variant”?—however these new ones are on one other stage of weirdness. And never everybody’s a fan.
The names related to the coronavirus have been a fraught dialog because the pandemic’s earliest days, as scientists and public-health figures have tried to make use of phrases which can be understandable and maintain folks’s consideration however that additionally keep away from pitfalls of inaccuracy, fear-mongering, or xenophobia and racism (see: Donald Trump referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese language virus” and “kung flu”). The official names for variants and subvariants—names resembling SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7—come from the Pango naming system, which was usual by evolutionary biologists within the early months of the pandemic to standardize variant-naming practices. As baffling as they will appear, they comply with a transparent logic: Underneath the system, B refers to a selected COVID lineage, B.1 refers back to the sublineage of B lineage, B.1.1 refers back to the first sublineage of the B.1 sublineage, and so forth. When the names get too lengthy, a letter replaces a string of numbers—B.1.1.529.1, for instance, turns into BA.1.
These official names don’t precisely roll off the tongue or stick within the reminiscence, which grew to become an issue when new variants of concern began to come up and the world started groping for tactics to speak about them. In Could 2021, the WHO instituted its now-familiar Greek-letter naming system to stamp out the geographic associations that have been gaining prominence on the time. B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and B.1.617—which have been being referred to respectively because the U.Okay. variant, the South African variant, and the Indian variant—grew to become Alpha, Beta, and Delta. However then, alas, got here Omicron. Relatively than giving solution to yet one more new Greek-letter variant, Omicron has spent greater than a 12 months branching into sublineages, and sublineages of sublineages. Consequently, the nomenclature has devolved again into alphanumeric incomprehensibility. Seven totally different Omicron sublineages now account for not less than 2 % of all infections, and none accounts for greater than about 40 % (although XBB.1.5 is threatening to overwhelm its opponents).
It’s nice information that the methods through which the coronavirus has been mutating not too long ago haven’t been important sufficient to supply a complete new, widespread, and probably way more worrisome model of itself that the world has to deal with. But it surely additionally makes speaking concerning the virus rather more annoying. Enter T. Ryan Gregory, an evolutionary biologist at Canada’s College of Guelph who is likely one of the leaders of a small, casual group of scientists which have taken it upon themselves to call the numerous subvariants that the WHO doesn’t deem worthy of a brand new Greek letter. The names—Hydra, Cerberus, Centaurus—originated on Twitter, the place Gregory compiled them right into a list.
Their worth, Gregory informed me, is that they fill the house in between the Greek and Pango techniques, permitting folks to debate the numerous present Omicron variants that don’t justify a brand new Greek letter however are nonetheless, maybe, of curiosity. You’ll be able to consider it in the identical manner we do animal taxonomy, he mentioned. Calling a variant Omicron, like calling an animal a mammal, just isn’t notably descriptive. Calling a variant by its Pango title, like calling an animal by its Latinate species designation, is extremely descriptive however a bit unwieldy in widespread parlance. Once we converse of cattle that moo and produce milk, we converse not of mammals or of Bos taurus however of cows. And so BA.2.3.20 grew to become Basilisk.
To resolve whether or not a brand new lineage deserves its personal title, Gregory informed me, he and his colleagues take into account each evolutionary components (how totally different is that this lineage from its predecessors, and the way regarding are its mutations?) and epidemiological components (how a lot havoc is that this lineage wreaking within the inhabitants?). They’re attempting to make the method extra formal, however Gregory would like that the WHO take over and standardize the method.
That, nonetheless, is unlikely to occur. After I requested about this, Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO spokesperson, informed me that the group is conscious of the unofficial names however that, for the second, they’re not vital. “Virologists and different scientists are monitoring these variants, however the public doesn’t want to differentiate between these Omicron subvariants with a view to higher perceive their danger or the measures they should take to guard themselves,” he mentioned. The WHO’s place, in different phrases, is that the variations between one Omicron subvariant and one other merely haven’t mattered a lot in any sensible sense, as a result of they shouldn’t have any impact on our habits. Regardless of the sublineage, vaccines and boosters nonetheless supply one of the best safety obtainable. Masks nonetheless work. Steerage on testing and isolation, too, is identical throughout the board. “If there’s a new variant that requires public communication and discourse,” Jasarevic informed me, “it might be designated a brand new variant of concern and assigned a brand new label.”
The WHO isn’t alone in objecting. For Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virologist on the College of Utah, the brand new names are usually not simply pointless however doubtlessly dangerous. “It’s completely loopy that we’re having random folks on Twitter title variants,” he informed me. For Goldstein, dressing up every new subvariant with an ominous monster title overplays the variations between the mutations and feeds into the panic that comes each time the coronavirus shifts type. On this view, distinguishing one Omicron sublineage from one other is much less like distinguishing a wolf from a cow and extra like distinguishing a white-footed mouse from a deer mouse: necessary to a rodentologist however probably not to anybody else. To go so far as naming lineages after terrifying legendary beasts, he mentioned, “appears clearly meant to scare the shit out of individuals … It is arduous to know what broader objective there may be right here apart from this very self-serving clout chasing.”
Gregory informed me that worry and a focus are usually not his group’s goal. He additionally mentioned, although, that his group is considering of switching from mythological creatures to one thing extra impartial, resembling constellations, partially to handle issues of whipping up pointless panic. Relating to XBB.1.5, a few of that panic actually already exists, whipped up by less-than-nuanced headlines and Twitter personalities who feast on moments like these. Whether or not or not the title Kraken has contributed, the worry is that XBB.1.5 could be a variant so immune-evasive that it infects everybody once more or so virulent that it amps up the chance of any given an infection. To this point, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
As my colleague Katherine Wu reported in November, we’re possible (although on no account undoubtedly) caught for the foreseeable future on this Omicron purgatory, with its extra gradual, extra piecemeal sample of viral evolution. That is actually preferable to the sudden and surprising emergence of a harmful, drastically totally different variant. But it surely does imply that we’re possible going to be arguing about whether or not and the way and with what names to debate Omicron subvariants for a while to come back.
Whichever facet you come down on, the state of variant-naming fairly effectively encapsulates the state of the pandemic as a complete. Hardly something concerning the pandemic has been a matter of common settlement, however the current nomenclatural free-for-all appears to have taken us someplace much more splintered, much more anarchic. We’re not simply arguing concerning the pandemic; we’re arguing about how you can argue concerning the pandemic. And there’s no finish in sight.