Why is the new COVID Omicron variant called Kraken?

Why is the new COVID Omicron variant called Kraken?

Everyone knows the names of the main COVID variants Alpha, Delta and Omicron. But in the last year, viral evolution has shifted, muddling both the waters and the names of the main variants. Instead of spawning new variants, COVID began to evolve within Omicron itself – at a breakneck pace no less. The organization responsible for naming the latest variants of concern – the World Health Organization – stopped using Greek letters after omicron, arguing that all the new variants were not distinct enough to warrant nicknames.

Remember the formerly ubiquitous BA.4, BA.5 or BQ.1.1 COVID strains? Have you heard about the currently booming XBB.1.5 and do you understand what the jumble of letters and numbers mean? They probably don’t — and some experts say it’s because of the names. You could be forgiven for thinking that another strain of Omicron doesn’t pose a new threat – especially if you already had Omicron or received the new Omicron booster.

New strains of Omicron are becoming increasingly transmissible and evasive, with the ability to evade immunity from previous vaccinations and infections. And using the term “omicron” or something like XBB.1.5 to describe them just doesn’t cut it anymore, said Dr. Ryan Gregory, a biology professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, told Fortune.

“Kraken” is what he calls XBB.1.5, which the WHO has just declared the most transferrable Omicron variant to date. Gregory has worked for months to offer “street names” for complicated COVID strains to better communicate the evolving Omicron threat to the public.

And as for pseudonyms, he has a lot more where the octopus came from.

With input from both professional and “common” scientists around the world, Gregory has compiled a list of memorable nicknames from Greek mythology and other realms – Chiron, Argus, Basilisk, and Typhon – for the Omicron spawn that medical experts believe that they pose the greatest threats in the near future. He told Fortune he was inspired by a Twitter user this summer naming the Omicron strain BA.2.75 “Centaurus,” and saw the media and some pundits pick up on it.

Ever since Gregory began using “kraken” — an aggressive sea monster from Scandinavian folklore — just after Christmas, it’s taken off quickly, Bloomberg reports. The term has been picked up by a variety of other international and national news outlets, including Insider and Sky News. Centaurus has been named in journal articles and used by Nature and The Guardian. And some variant trackers are now using the suggested names as hashtags on Twitter.

Gregory compared Omicron and its variants to different species within the vertebrate mammalian family.

“If you say, ‘Oh, what is that thing in my garden?’ and I said, ‘It’s a mammal,’ would you say, ‘Is it something that’s going to eat me? Will it steal my veggies? Does it transmit diseases? Is it someone’s pet?’” he explained.

“Omicron” remains a useful descriptor, he claimed. But more than a year after the highly transmissible Omicron strain burst onto the global stage, someone has to name new variants.

If the WHO doesn’t do it, he has decided he will.

Gone are the days of Greek letters?

As COVID variants began to materialize, the WHO developed the strategy of naming them after Greek letters and skipping over some that might be confusing – like Nu, which sounds like “new” which would eventually apply to all variants – or offensive to some. like Xi, the first name of the Chinese President.

In general, the approach worked, Gregory said. But Omicron messed things up.

dr Raj Rajnarayanan, associate dean of research and associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology campus in Jonesboro, Ark., is on Gregory’s informal team to come up with nicknames for particularly troubled Omicron spin-offs.

Even as a veteran scientist and professor, Rajnarayanan said he’s found it difficult to communicate effectively with non-scientists about the jumble of variants that scientists monitor.

“When you give 200 different lineages with different potential the same name, it becomes a problem,” he recently told Fortune.

Experts like Gregory and Rajnarayanan worry that the lack of new and specific names for Omicron variants could lead the public to the wrong conclusions, such as that the virus isn’t evolving, or that infection with Omicron months ago is protective against newer strains of Omicron , which is not necessarily true.

“The public cannot keep these numbers open”

So far, the WHO has refused to issue a Greek letter, particularly with regard to omicron variants. Fortune contacted the International Health Organization to ask why and received no response.

Its resistance is scientifically based, as new Omicron variants can be traced back to older Omicron variants. But it’s not practical, said Dr. Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research and founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told Fortune last fall.

“And it’s not a good defense for not naming them,” he added. “I would ask you to do this. The public cannot keep track of these numbers.”

Topol says he would have named BA.5, which until recently dominated the world, Pi or Sigma because it differs “so significantly” from the original Omicron, BA.1, as well as the so-called stealth Omicron or BA.2.

Two particularly worrying newer variants — BQ.1.1 and XBB — should also be labeled with Greek letters because researchers called them “extreme in terms of immune evasion and monoclonal antibody resistance,” he said at the time.

“You could give them new Greek letter names instead of the ones some people make up,” he said of the new tribes. “When different people come up with names, it’s just as confusing as the numbers or letters.”

Basilisk here, Hydra there

When describing potentially threatening variants, the WHO currently uses so-called pango lines – combinations of letters and numbers that you have probably heard of, such as BA.2.75.2 and BA.4.6.

Pango tags have maintained their specificity as the virus mutates at a rampage, Gregory said. But such labels are almost too precise for the general public. And aside from being forgetful, they are easily confused.

“When I talk to people I say BA.1, they think I say BL.1 – and that’s a different twist,” Rajnarayanan said. “Even the two-letter system causes confusion.”

Gregory equates pango names with technical species names, such as Mus musculus for mouse or Rattus norvegicus for rat. Such technical names are not often used by the general public. However, some species — like Oncorhynchus mykiss or rainbow trout — get a common name because “we encounter them often, they’re important to us, they’re dangerous or useful or delicious or whatever,” he said.

And so it should be with COVID variants, he claims. Particularly widespread, “high-flying” variants such as XBB, a hybrid of BJ.1 and BM.1.1.1, should be given a nickname – Gryphon, according to its system – to make the threat easier to convey to the general public.

It’s especially important, he says, as a menagerie of omicron spawns are popping up in various locations around the world in a way unprecedented before in the pandemic.

“If we want to make it clear that what’s rising in the UK isn’t the same as what’s rising in the US – the ‘alphabet soup’ is going to be very difficult for that,” he said. He believes that if his system were adopted, for example with Basilisk and Cerberus in the UK and Hydra and Aeterna in the US, “you can immediately tell which names are the same and which aren’t.”

If COVID continues to produce new mutations, there are other lists of names to tap into — planets, stars, constellations, galaxies, Gregory said.

What on earth will he come up with next?

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