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 yr, 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 at the moment that includes in involved headlines. Not too long ago, 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 aren’t 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 means from Twitter to a variety of main information websites, together with Bloomberg and The New York Instances. Unofficial epithets have come and gone all through the pandemic—bear in mind “stealth Omicron” and the “Frankenstein variant”?—however these new ones are on one other degree 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 equivalent to SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7—come from the Pango naming system, which was customary by evolutionary biologists within the early months of the pandemic to standardize variant-naming practices. As baffling as they’ll appear, they comply with a transparent logic: Below 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 strategy to one more new Greek-letter variant, Omicron has spent greater than a yr branching into sublineages, and sublineages of sublineages. Consequently, the nomenclature has devolved again into alphanumeric incomprehensibility. Seven totally different Omicron sublineages now account for no less than 2 p.c of all infections, and none accounts for greater than about 40 p.c (although XBB.1.5 is threatening to overwhelm its opponents).
It’s nice information that the methods during which the coronavirus has been mutating just lately haven’t been vital sufficient to provide an entire new, widespread, and presumably much more worrisome model of itself that the world has to cope with. Nevertheless it 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 various 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 checklist.
Their worth, Gregory advised me, is that they fill the house in between the Greek and Pango programs, permitting folks to debate the various present Omicron variants that don’t justify a brand new Greek letter however are nonetheless, maybe, of curiosity. You possibly can consider it in the identical means we do animal taxonomy, he mentioned. Calling a variant Omicron, like calling an animal a mammal, shouldn’t be 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 frequent parlance. Once we communicate of livestock that moo and produce milk, we communicate not of mammals or of Bos taurus however of cows. And so BA.2.3.20 grew to become Basilisk.
To determine whether or not a brand new lineage deserves its personal title, Gregory advised me, he and his colleagues think about 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 favor 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, advised me that the group is conscious of the unofficial names however that, for the second, they’re not obligatory. “Virologists and different scientists are monitoring these variants, however the public doesn’t want to tell apart between these Omicron subvariants with the intention to higher perceive their threat 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 conduct. Irrespective of the sublineage, vaccines and boosters nonetheless provide the very best safety accessible. Masks nonetheless work. Steering on testing and isolation, too, is identical throughout the board. “If there’s a new variant that requires public communication and discourse,” Jasarevic advised 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 aren’t simply pointless however probably dangerous. “It’s completely loopy that we’re having random folks on Twitter title variants,” he advised 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: vital to a rodentologist however not likely to anybody else. To go so far as naming lineages after terrifying legendary beasts, he mentioned, “appears clearly supposed to scare the shit out of individuals … It is onerous to grasp what broader aim there’s right here apart from this very self-serving clout chasing.”
Gregory advised me that worry and a spotlight aren’t his group’s goal. He additionally mentioned, although, that his group is pondering of switching from mythological creatures to one thing extra impartial, equivalent to constellations, partially to deal with considerations 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 is likely to be a variant so immune-evasive that it infects everybody another time or so virulent that it amps up the danger of any given an infection. To date, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
As my colleague Katherine Wu reported in November, we’re possible (although on no account positively) 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 sudden emergence of a harmful, drastically totally different variant. Nevertheless it 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 return.
Whichever facet you come down on, the state of variant-naming fairly properly encapsulates the state of the pandemic as an entire. 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 methods to argue concerning the pandemic. And there’s no finish in sight.