White greek letters on a blackboard

The new coronavirus variant names

The WHO announced has announced they will be using new variant names for the SARS-CoV-2 strains that are particularly notable.

When it comes to viruses, one of the difficult things to keep on top of are mutations. When a species of virus collects a small mutation which may slightly change its properties, the strain or variant is designated a name.

Variants are designated letters and numbers to signify a) their lineage and b) a number to distinguish between strains within the same lineage.

Quick definitions: Mutations, variants and strains

Some of the SARS-CoV-2 strains start with B, which refers to variants that originated from the first COVID-19 outbreak in Italy in 2020, and numbers have been stuck on the end of the B mostly in order of when they were found.

We usually only talk about four major variants, but there are actually a whole lot of them, with more emerging all the time. A lot of these aren’t notable for the general public, but because of the vast number, that lineage-number naming system helps researchers sort through them all.

Of course, going around saying “B.1.1.7” or “B.1.617” gets confusing. But there isn’t a universal naming system, and so many of the variants have been called things like “the Indian variant” or “the UK variant”.

Cosmos Q&A: the new COVID-19 variants

This tends to load the name with an implicit derogatory connotation associated with where the variant first emerged, and that isn’t the best way to talk about these variants in an unbiased manner.

Cosmos is guilty of doing this ourselves, and we have actually discussed how we should write about each of these strains in our morning meetings – it is a global problem when it comes to communication because there needs to be easily distinguishable nomenclature that carries no baggage.

So we were quite happy when the WHO said that they would be designating variants of note with Greek letters in order of when they were identified. Here is a quick rundown of which is which, and how we at Cosmos will be referring to them in the future.

Where the variant
was identified
Designated WHO nameLineage
United KingdomAlphaB.1.1.7
South AfricaBetaB.1.351
New SARS-CoV-2 variant names

The current strain that is circulating in Melbourne is the Kappa variant, which may spread more easily than some of the other variants. Experts say vaccination should still be effective against this strain.