Sunday, August 7, 2022

WHO has lost control of the public naming process. It was bound to happen. The Pango System, is logical, but too abstract to carry any impact in a news broadcast. It’s useful for viral geneticists, but, face it, they’re in the minority. So the media referred to new COVID-19 variants by where they were first noticed. B.1.617.2, first identified in India in late 2020, started as the “Indian Variant.” B.1.1.7, first noticed in England, became the “Kent Variant, after the county in England where its rapid spread was first noticed.

The World Health Organization, wanting to avoid stigmatizing countries (or counties), but recognizing that people liked simple pronounceable names, decided to name new variants after letters in the Greek alphabet in the order in which they were discovered. Not all new variants got a Greek letter, of course. There were far too many. A variant had to earn a Greek letter by spreading so rapidly that it became dominant enough for the WHO to be interested or concerned, at which point it became a Variant of Interest or a Variant of Concern and deserved to be called Alpha or Gamma or Delta. These became the names we heard in the news.

Sons of Omicron in the United States: BA.5, BA,4, BA.4.6, BA.2.12.1, and so on

Have you ever noticed that when a new Greek letter variant is in the news, they say it spreads even faster that the previous variant? Of course it does. It earns a Greek letter by winning the marathon. The viral geneticists still use the Pango designation, though, because that helps them trace how the variants are related to each other. The relationships are relevant from the geneticist point of view.

For example, I could have called my four children G1, G2, G3, and G4. If G1 had six children and G4 had one, we would call my grandchildren G1.1, G1.2, G1.3, G1.4, G1.5, G1.6, and G4.1. The family tree would look funny but you would know exactly how each one was related to the others. But if only a few were famous, we might decide to call those particular ones easy names like Susan and Fred.

The along comes Omicron, a variant of concern that is particularly gifted at generating fast-spreading offspring. It’s as if G1.2’s first child, G1.2.1, had six children and each of them had six children, and so on. We might get to G1. Easy to trace, but hard to remember. This is where WHO lost control.

Omicron’s Pango name is B.1.1.529. The WHO calls it a Variant of Concern and states that it “includes BA.1, BA.2, BA.3, BA.4, BA.5 and descendent lineages.”

Current Variants of Concern, from WHO.

Where are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta, you ask? They have been demoted to “Previously circulating VOC’s.” The price of falling behind.

Note the statement below the chart: “WHO emphasizes that these descendant lineages should be monitored as distinct lineages by public health authorities.” (Bold, mine). So why don’t they have distinct names?

It degenerated into chaos! Headlines and YouTube, Twitter and podcasts throw around terms like “BA.4.6,” “BA.5,” “BA.2.75,” etc. My friend in England calls them all, “Son of Omicron.” Much easier, and it could have been a franchise.

Now the inevitable. Someone on Twitter decided to call BA.2.75 “Centaurus.” And why not? WHO has dropped the ball and left us with alphabet soup. The ultimate compliment to Xabier Ostale is that news sources are now talking about the Centaurus variant without any other designation. As the saying goes, it’s a thing.

Xabier Ostale had 7,328 followers when I looked him up on Twitter this morning.

Now he has 7,329.

Today’s Notable Headlines

“A Twitter ‘rando’ named a new coronavirus variant Centaurus and it stuck,” The Washington Post, July 14, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/07/14/centaurus-coronavirus-subvariant-world-health/

“Omicron WHAT? A users’ guide to COVID-19 variant names,” Gavi, July 25, 2022. https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/omicron-what-users-guide-covid-19-variant-names

“What is BA.4.6? The CDC is tracking a new COVID ‘variant of concern’ that’s overtaking earlier Omicron strains in at least 4 U.S. states,” Fortune, Aug. 4, 2022, https://fortune.com/2022/08/04/ba-4-6-omicron-subvariant-covid-ba-5-booster-vaccine/

“Centaurus: what we know about the new COVID variant and why there’s no cause for alarm,” Gavi, August 4, 2022. https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/centaurus-what-we-know-about-new-covid-variant-and-why-theres-no-cause-alarm

Additional Sources

What are Pango Lineages?, Pango Network, https://www.pango.network/how-does-the-system-work/what-are-pango-lineages/

How to Suggest a New Lineage, Pango Network, https://www.pango.network/how-does-the-system-work/how-to-suggest-a-new-lineage/

“Naming SARS-CoV-2 variants,” WHO, https://www.who.int/activities/tracking-SARS-CoV-2-variants

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic will be written on our memories just as the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the Great Depression, or the Cold War left their mark on past generations. Since March 11, 2020, this blog has examined the modern pandemic experience, drawing on my background as a medical technologist, a historian, and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary world crisis.

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