July 25, 2024


Health Can Do

Why COVID-19 Names Are Getting a Makeover

5 min read

When his team decided to name the XBB.1.5 variant of COVID-19 “Kraken,” Ryan Gregory never imagined it would resonate the way that it did.

It was an arbitrary nickname, meant to be an improvement on the confusing letter-and-number-salad system that led to official nomenclature like “XBB.1.5”—but certainly not designed to make the public think that this particular strain of COVID-19 was the most monstrous yet. “I always associated [the word] with the silly 1981 Clash of the Titans movie,” he says. “It’s cheesy in a way.”

Gregory is an evolutionary biologist at Canada’s University of Guelph and the unofficial spokesperson for the small group of scientists fighting for clearer (and catchier) pandemic nomenclature. The team, which includes a science teacher from Indiana and academics across disciplines in Italy, Australia, and more, first assembled on Twitter. There, they’d been assigning creature-based nicknaming efforts for COVID-19 subvariants they deemed significant long before they began receiving media coverage for Kraken; they’d named others Gryphon, Basilisk, and Minotaur, for example.

But Kraken drew the first real attention to the project. And not all of that attention was positive. When the name caught on, some experts expressed concern that it could unnecessarily stoke fear because of its monstrous connotations. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO), which had led (and still does lead) the scientific discourse around COVID-19 nomenclature, remained conspicuously silent on the nickname in interviews at the time. “There was a lot of talk like, This is fear mongering, and it’s causing panic,” Gregory says. “And I’m like, ‘None of that happened.’ Meanwhile, the [WHO] was saying stuff like it’s the most transmissible variant ever. That’s scarier to me than this goofy mythological name.”

Read more: Why New COVID-19 Variants Have Such Confusing Names

Whether it was goofy or scary, the name Kraken stole enough attention to convince Gregory and his colleagues that maybe they would have been better off using more neutral names. So, on Feb. 13, the team debuted an updated system with an extensive user guide, which utilizes the names of constellations and other celestial objects rather than mythological creatures. And unlike in an ordered system like the Greek alphabet, Gregory is unlikely to run out of names. He’s got a long list, he says, of “stars, planets, moons, comments, galaxies…whatever.” It’s the citizen scientists’ second act, and how it goes could teach science communicators important lessons about what people want as they learn to live alongside COVID-19.

The WHO’s initial plan, back in May 2021, was that major lineages of the virus would each get their own Greek letter. Alpha’s time in the spotlight gave way to Beta, and so on. But Omicron—the 13th named strain—never stopped spreading, and as it did, it branched out, with new mutated variants extending out like tree trunks from an original Omicron, most evolving even further into nearly indistinguishable subvariants. Using a method called Pango, which was developed by infectious-disease experts at the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh and formally adopted by international organizations in 2021, the agency quickly got into what Gregory calls “variant soup,” with each subvariant given a Dewey Decimal-like name with different letter and number elements that allow you to track its exact lineage. That’s how you end up with news stories about difficult-to-remember but important subvariants like XBB.1.16, which is currently gaining traction in the U.S.

“It’s a very logical system,” says Gregory, but you have to know how to decode it. “The thing that concerns me a little bit is the World Health Organization is in this challenging position now where there are variants they want people to know about, but then they have to refer to technical names again.”

“If people are going to be talking about it, in a non-technical context, it should have a nickname. That’s it for me,” he says. A virus, by any other name, is still as infectious, but you should at least be able to remember what it’s called.

Read more: Why U.S. Experts Can’t Agree on the Origins of COVID-19

The common names developed by Gregory’s team fill in what many have identified as a gap left by a more technical system that those outside of science are unlikely to use. Initially the group assigned somewhat arbitrary names of mythological creatures to any variant designated by WHO as a “variant of concern” or a “variant of interest.” Their revised common naming system is getting more systematic, and includes new methods of epithet-based indexing.

Gregory’s team has broken the alphabet into four sections—one for each of the three largest Omicron lineages, and one for viruses from smaller lineages. These groups are represented by the first letter of a subvariant’s common name. If a name begins with letters A through H, for example, it’s from the BA.2 lineage.

Additionally, if a variant is a recombinant strain, meaning it was formed from the combination of two existing iterations, the name will have an R in it somewhere, says Gregory. Take the first variant the team nicknamed under the new system: XBB.1.16, or Arcturus. Because Arcturus starts with an A, it means it’s from the BA.2 lineage, and because it has an R in it, it’s a recombinant strain.

Gregory believes that the new naming system is still doing the trick, even without the dramatic connotations of Krakens and Minotaurs. ”People are referring to Arcturus,” he says, “and presumably finding it helpful to talk about this particular variant.” Though Gregory believes it can easily work alongside and bolster Pango, the official groups that are seen as the authorities in such decision-making, such as the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have yet to adopt the team’s new system or any of its terminology. Indeed, on Apr. 21, Maria Van Kerkhove, a WHO epidemiologist and the agency’s COVID-19 technical lead, tweeted at the end of a thread about XBB.1.16, “We are not using nicknames for these subvariants, and I would kindly encourage you not to. Please.” Gregory shared the tweet alongside an image showing “Arcturus” trending on Twitter.

He has a point. Beyond Twitter, the nicknames are being used widely in the media and have even appeared in research papers and scientific journals. It’s a tug-of-war unlikely to end anytime soon, given how quickly the virus—and how people refer to it—continue to change.

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