Thursday, September 22, 2022

What's in a name? When Omicron isn't Omicron

Tracking and Communicating About Variants

Say the words “Alpha”, “Delta”, or “Omicron” today and virtually the whole world knows what you are talking about: a variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.

This universal awareness is the result of a phenomenally successful choice by the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide Greek letter names to the major variants of the virus that have evolved over the course of the pandemic (WHO variants page). Providing these names avoided a choice between the inaccessible and confusing Pango nomenclature (e.g. “B.1.1.7”, "B.1.351", "B.1.617.2"), and inaccurate and stigmatizing place names (“e.g. “UK variant,” “South African variant,” “Indian variant,”).

Between mid-2020 and the end of 2021, 10 major variants had been named.

No new major variants have been named since Omicron was named in November 2021.

However, this lack of new names is not because no new major variants have emerged. Rather, they’re all lumped into “Omicron” now. And this mistake can be traced back to the initial naming of Omicron.