The Name Game

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Centaurus, Scrabble, Scariant? The WHO lost control of the Coronavirus naming convention months ago and now anybody can play. Name your own virus and get your 15 minutes of fame! Even if no one else knows what you’re talking about.

First came Xabier Ostale, who tweeted on July 1, 2022, that we should call BA.2.75 “Centaurus.” Then Peter Hotez, of Texas Children’s Hospital, coined the term “Scrabble variants” for offshoots of BA.2, BA.4, and BA.5 because the names of these new variants have the letters Q and X which score high in Scrabble. These variants include BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 which have been doubling in the United States each week in October. At this point they account for 1 in 4 of new COVID infections in the U.S. BQ.1.1 is surging in New York and parts of Europe. It is known to escape antibody treatments, which have been effective in treating high-risk individuals until now.

One thing’s for sure–the distribution of variants in the U.S. (and elsewhere) is changing rapidly.

Compare the two CDC variant graphs below, the first in July and the second in October:

April 30 to July 30, 2022: Decline of BA.2 and BA.2.12.1. BA.5 is the fastest growing variant in the United States
July 30 to October, 2022. BA.5 is declining. BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are the faster growing variants now.

At first, I thought the term “scariant” was new this year, a name made up for Halloween. But it’s been around since March, 2021, when cardiologist Eric Topol tweeted a link to an article in Wired (link below) which points out two factors that fed into the news media’s scary variant frenzy. First is the media’s tendency to make new variants newsworthy by combining names of new variants with the potential threat posed by their particular mutation. Second, the CDC had the funding to ramp up their genomic sequencing starting last year, so we are detecting more new variants than before. It takes time and a lot of expertise, the article goes on to say, to characterize these variants in terms of their virulence and contagion, i.e. how much threat they pose to us. In the meantime, the fact that a variant is “new” and might be dangerous has sometimes been enough to gain it a headline.

While the research is underway, the CDC may label certain new variants as “variants of interest” in order to identify them as mutants to watch. A variant advances to “variant of concern” only if it spreads faster, causes more severe disease, evades treatments, or evades antibodies from vaccinations and/or prior infection. Not every variant of interest is scary. And it doesn’t help matters for news articles to try to dress them up as scary.

Back in March, 2021, Dr. James Musser called this kind of fear mongering, “mutant porn.” And it still goes on today.

Take a look at this article from The Daily Beast:

We’re hearing a lot about XBB, the variant that is surging in Singapore, which has a highly vaccinated population. Like BQ.1.1, XBB evades treatment with monoclonal antibodies. Now a few cases of XBB.1, an offspring of XBB, has been detected in New York. It’s not widespread enough to influence the latest CDC variant graph right now, but it’s spreading fast and according to WHO has been found in 26 countries. Some articles are calling it the “Nightmare Variant.”

I haven’t tracked down who gets credit for that name yet. Stay tuned.

Today’s Notable Headlines

“‘Nightmare’ and ‘Scrabble’: How Worried Should You Be About New COVID Variants?” NBC5 Chicago, Oct. 26, 2022.

“‘Scrabble variants’ now cause the majority of new Covid-19 infections in the US,” CNN, Oct. 28, 2022.

“The Nightmare COVID Variant That Beats Our Immunity Is Finally Here,” The Daily Beast, Oct. 16, 2022.

“The US Has a Covid ‘Scariants’ Problem. Here’s How to Fix It,” Wired, Mar. 5, 2021,

“New Halloween ‘Scariant’ Variants and Boosting Your Immunity: COVID, Quickly, Episode 41,” Scientific American, Oct. 25, 2022.

“ASIP Member Dr. James Musser featured for COVID-19 Research,” March 1, 2021,

“The XBB family of Omicron has landed in the U.S. Here’s what it means for this fall’s COVID wave,” Fortune, Oct. 18, 2022.

“Not just Singapore: The highly immune-evasive XBB COVID variant has been identified in 26 countries, the WHO says,” Oct. 20, 2022.

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic is a classic watershed historical event. People will be referring to “before the pandemic” or “after the pandemic” for decades to come. 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. My sources, both primary and secondary, are documented with links for easy reference.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s