In Could 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that key variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could be assigned names from the Greek alphabet, along with their scientific designations, to provide individuals all over the world a easy, non-stigmatizing approach to discuss them. (Beforehand and problematically, variants had been typically referred to relying on the place they had been first detected.) That system led to family names like Alpha, Delta, and Omicron.
However after Omicron was first detected in late 2021, variants began to sound much more technical, with names like BA.2, BA.2.12.1, BA.4, BA.5, and, most not too long ago, BA.2.75. Why all these advanced names when there’s nonetheless no variant often known as Pi?
All alongside, there have been way more SARS-CoV-2 variants than have gotten Greek names; the WHO assigns alphabetical names solely to variants of concern which are considerably totally different from earlier ones. “On the time Omicron was rising, there have been tons of of sublineages of Delta that we had been monitoring,” explains Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19. In comparison with these, Omicron represented a drastic shift within the virus’ evolution, with a “substantial” variety of mutations, Van Kerkhove says. As we now know, these mutations made Omicron extra contagious however a bit much less extreme than Delta.
Whereas there are variations between BA.2, BA.4, BA.5, and the remainder of the Omicron subvariants, they’re all pretty related to one another and the unique Omicron pressure. That’s why they’re thought-about descendants of Omicron relatively than their very own distinct variants with totally different Greek names to match, Van Kerkhove says.
However some specialists assume that system wants an replace. Trevor Bedford, a professor within the vaccine and infectious illness division at Fred Hutchinson Most cancers Heart in Seattle, says it might be higher to provide important subvariants names of their very own, not less than from a public communications perspective. Once you say “‘Omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1,’ individuals tune out,” Bedford says.
The evolutionary soar from Delta to Omicron was massive, and the virus might not change that dramatically once more for years—if ever, Bedford says. So, in his opinion, there ought to be a decrease bar for assigning new alphabetical names. BA.2 was about 30% more transmissible than the unique Omicron pressure, he factors out, which was a significant shift. BA.5, our present tormentor within the U.S., appears to be essentially the most contagious but.
“When you have a variant that’s driving a large epidemic in a number of locations all through the world,” Bedford says, “it’s straightforward to provide these a label and would assist with everybody understanding what’s occurring.”
Van Kerkhove stresses that the WHO nonetheless considers and treats Omicron family members as variants of concern, even when they haven’t been assigned new names.
She provides that scientists all over the world proceed to observe the virus’ evolution—however that’s getting more and more troublesome as a result of testing and surveillance efforts have fallen by the wayside as many nations calm down pandemic precautions and residential testing grows extra widespread. However that doesn’t imply the virus has stopped mutating. There have been 5.7 million instances reported globally final week alone, Van Kerkhove notes. Widespread transmission means not solely that numerous individuals will get sick and doubtlessly die, but additionally that the virus may have possibilities to maintain mutating—maybe into but extra gradations of Omicron, or maybe right into a variant totally different sufficient to earn the label of Pi.
“The virus is underneath strain to alter,” Van Kerkhove says. “We ought to be ready for delicate modifications…however we [also] must be ready for a very totally different virus.”
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