Where? COVID-19When variants began to appear, experts described them using the place they were discovered first. This allowed them to be distinguished from their original counterparts. But, as we quickly learned, the coronavirus continued to mutate into new versions ― bringing a need for a new system for naming them.
Why switch to the Greek alphabet then? Below is a brief breakdown on why Greek letters are used, why some are skipped, and what happens when we reach the end of the Greek alphabet (and why you should get vaccinated so that we please, please don’t).
Every COVID variant needs its own letter
Let’s start with why we need to distinguish these different versions of COVID-19 at all. Viral organisms evolve just like any other living organism. The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses is a group that categorizes and creates a taxonomy of viruses. ICTV.
The ICTV is charged with developing the ways “in which we classify organisms, and we group them together according to similar properties,” according to Elliot J. Lefkowitz, the data secretary for ICTV.
These classifications usually contain a mixture of letters and numbers. You may have noticed some, such as B.1.1.7 during the Pandemic. These classifications also include SARS-CoV-2 which is the virus responsible for COVID-19.
The Greek letter process is here to help. Because SARS-CoV-2, which is extremely contagious, can cause many mutations and has to be classified as such by scientists. However, there are some important things to keep in mind. the World Health OrganizationNote that it can get cumbersome when you refer to an individual variant by its scientific names.
Lefkowitz says that there are very few viruses in the world that develop lineages with unique characteristics that cause widespread disease.
“And of all the ones I can recall, I don’t recall any others that use the Greek letter convention,” he added.
In essence, we’re blazing new trails with the COVID-19 variants.
For a brief time, we described variants based on where they were first discovered, such as the “U.K. variant” or the “South Africa variant.” But that led to another issue: Labels that associate variants with their locations of discovery can create stigma and lead to discrimination toward those regions, the WHO stated.
Why are some Greek letters skipped in naming Coronavirus Variants
Although we’re moving through the Greek alphabet, well, alphabetically for the COVID variants, scientists have skipped some letters in the process.
Sometimes, it was just a variant. one of interestIt was a notable increase in incidence, although not as severe or widespread as other variants. So while those variants were named, they just didn’t gain enough traction to become common knowledge. For variants such as lambda or mu, this was true.
To get to Omicron, nu and xi were both recently completely skipped. This was because “nu is too easily confounded with ‘new,’ and xi was not used because it is a common surname,” the WHO said in a statement.
How does it turn out when the Greek alphabet ends?
For those who live in areas affected by hurricanes, you’re probably familiar with what happens during an active season: Once the end of the named hurricane list is reached for the year, scientists move on to the Greek alphabet.
The end of the alphabet is over. What then? Lefkowitz stated that previous viruses using Greek letters put prefix letters ahead of new strains. He believes this is the route we’ll go with coronavirus variants if necessary. It will be interesting to see what the future holds. There’s still a lot we don’t know about COVID, despite the fact that we’ve been living with it for almost two years. It also includes how to name new variants.
“I think an important fact that maybe is not emphasized enough is that we never followed any other virus disease as closely as we’ve been able to follow COVID-19,” Lefkowitz said. “And so it’s required scientists to think about new ways of approaching how we communicate the information, and how we take this level of detail and make it understandable to ourselves and to the general public.”
Of course, the best way to make sure we don’t actually reach the end of the Greek alphabet is to protect ourselves and others from the virus in the first place. A virus will continue to multiply as long as they have hosts. If we get vaccinated, wear our face masks and keep following other basic health measures, we’ll reduce the chances of us blowing through the list.