Health

Why don’t we have a COVID-19 variant called Pi?


In May 2021, The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that the major variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, will be assigned names from the Greek alphabet, in addition to their scientific symbols, to bring to people around the world Simply put, do not discriminate against them. (Previously and problematically, variants are often called depending on where they were first discovered.) That system led to household names like Alpha, Delta, and Omicron.

But after Omicron was first discovered in late 2021, variants started to seem a lot more technical, with names like BA.2, BA.2.12.1, BA.4, BA.5and most recently BA.2.75. Why these complicated names when there isn’t a variant called Pi yet?

Along with that, there have been more variants of SARS-CoV-2 than Greek names; WHO gives only alphabetical names to variants of interest that are significantly different from previous variants. “At the time Omicron was emerging, there were hundreds of Delta sublines that we were monitoring,” explains Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19. Compared to those, Omicron represents a dramatic change in virus evolution, with a “significant” number of mutations, Van Kerkhove said. As we know, those mutations make Omicron more contagious but slightly less severe than Delta.

Although there are differences between BA.2, BA.4, BA.5 and the rest of the Omicron sub-variables, they are all quite similar and resemble the original Omicron. That’s why they’re considered descendants of Omicron rather than their separate variants with different Greek names to match, Van Kerkhove said.

But some experts say that system needs to be updated. Trevor Bedford, a professor in the division of vaccines and infectious diseases at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, says it’s better to name their own important secondary variables, at least from a communications perspective. mass. When you say “’Omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1′, people tune in,” says Bedford.

The evolutionary jump from Delta to Omicron is huge, and the virus probably won’t change that dramatically for many years — if at all, Bedford said. So in his opinion there should be a lower bar to assign new names alphabetically. BA.2 is transmitted about 30% more compared to the original Omicron strain, he points out, it’s a significant change. BA.5, our current tormentor in the United States, seems to be the most contagious.

“If you have a variant that’s causing a huge outbreak in many parts of the world, it’s easy to put these labels on and will help people understand what’s going on,” Bedford said.

Van Kerkhove stressed that the WHO still considers Omicron’s relatives to be worrisome variants, even if they have not yet been given a new name.

She adds that scientists around the world continue to monitor the evolution of the virus — but that is becoming increasingly difficult because testing and monitoring efforts have failed as more countries relax pandemic precautions and home testing is increasingly common. But that doesn’t mean the virus has stopped mutating. There were 5.7 million cases reported globally in the last week alone, Van Kerkhove noted. Widespread transmission not only means a lot of people will get sick and potentially die, but it also gives the virus a chance to continue to mutate — possibly into more levels of Omicron, or maybe into a variant that’s different enough to be branded Pi.

“The virus is under pressure to change,” Van Kerkhove said. “We should be prepared for small changes… but we [also] have to prepare for a completely different virus.”

Other must-read stories from TIME


Write letter for Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com.



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