When his crew determined to call the XBB.1.5 variant of COVID-19 “Kraken,” Ryan Gregory by no means imagined it might resonate the best way that it did.
It was an arbitrary nickname, meant to be an enchancment on the complicated letter-and-number-salad system that led to official nomenclature like “XBB.1.5”—however definitely not designed to make the general public assume that this specific pressure of COVID-19 was essentially the most monstrous but. “I at all times related [the word] with the foolish 1981 Conflict of the Titans film,” he says. “It’s tacky in a method.”
Gregory is an evolutionary biologist at Canada’s College of Guelph and the unofficial spokesperson for the small group of scientists preventing for clearer (and catchier) pandemic nomenclature. The crew, which features a science instructor from Indiana and teachers throughout disciplines in Italy, Australia, and extra, first assembled on Twitter. There, they’d been assigning creature-based nicknaming efforts for COVID-19 subvariants they deemed important lengthy earlier than they started receiving media protection for Kraken; they’d named others Gryphon, Basilisk, and Minotaur, for instance.
However Kraken drew the primary actual consideration to the venture. And never all of that focus was optimistic. When the identify caught on, some consultants expressed concern that it may unnecessarily stoke worry due to its monstrous connotations. In the meantime, the World Well being Group (WHO), which had led (and nonetheless does lead) the scientific discourse round COVID-19 nomenclature, remained conspicuously silent on the nickname in interviews on the time. “There was a whole lot of discuss like, That is worry mongering, and it’s inflicting panic,” Gregory says. “And I’m like, ‘None of that occurred.’ In the meantime, the [WHO] was saying stuff prefer it’s essentially the most transmissible variant ever. That’s scarier to me than this goofy mythological identify.”
Learn extra: Why New COVID-19 Variants Have Such Complicated Names
Whether or not it was goofy or scary, the identify Kraken stole sufficient consideration to persuade Gregory and his colleagues that perhaps they’d have been higher off utilizing extra impartial names. So, on Feb. 13, the crew debuted an up to date system with an in depth consumer information, which makes use of the names of constellations and different celestial objects reasonably than mythological creatures. And in contrast to in an ordered system just like the Greek alphabet, Gregory is unlikely to expire of names. He’s acquired an extended record, he says, of “stars, planets, moons, feedback, galaxies…no matter.” It’s the citizen scientists’ second act, and the way it goes may educate science communicators essential classes about what individuals need as they be taught to reside alongside COVID-19.
The WHO’s preliminary plan, again in Could 2021, was that main lineages of the virus would every get their very own Greek letter. Alpha’s time within the highlight gave option to Beta, and so forth. However Omicron—the thirteenth named pressure—by no means stopped spreading, and because it did, it branched out, with new mutated variants extending out like tree trunks from an authentic Omicron, most evolving even additional into almost indistinguishable subvariants. Utilizing a way referred to as Pango, which was developed by infectious-disease consultants on the College of Oxford and the College of Edinburgh and formally adopted by worldwide organizations in 2021, the company shortly acquired into what Gregory calls “variant soup,” with every subvariant given a Dewey Decimal-like identify with totally different letter and quantity parts that can help you monitor its actual lineage. That’s how you find yourself with information tales about difficult-to-remember however essential subvariants like XBB.1.16, which is at the moment gaining traction within the U.S.
“It’s a really logical system,” says Gregory, however you need to know the right way to decode it. “The factor that issues me a bit of bit is the World Well being Group is on this difficult place now the place there are variants they need individuals to learn about, however then they need to confer with technical names once more.”
“If persons are going to be speaking about it, in a non-technical context, it ought to have a nickname. That’s it for me,” he says. A virus, by some other identify, remains to be as infectious, however it is best to not less than have the ability to bear in mind what it’s referred to as.
Learn extra: Why U.S. Consultants Can’t Agree on the Origins of COVID-19
The frequent names developed by Gregory’s crew fill in what many have recognized as a niche left by a extra technical system that these exterior of science are unlikely to make use of. Initially the group assigned considerably arbitrary names of mythological creatures to any variant designated by WHO as a “variant of concern” or a “variant of curiosity.” Their revised frequent naming system is getting extra systematic, and contains new strategies of epithet-based indexing.
Gregory’s crew has damaged the alphabet into 4 sections—one for every of the three largest Omicron lineages, and one for viruses from smaller lineages. These teams are represented by the primary letter of a subvariant’s frequent identify. If a reputation begins with letters A by H, for instance, it’s from the BA.2 lineage.
Moreover, if a variant is a recombinant pressure, that means it was shaped from the mix of two current iterations, the identify could have an R in it someplace, says Gregory. Take the primary variant the crew nicknamed underneath the brand new system: XBB.1.16, or Arcturus. As a result of Arcturus begins with an A, it means it’s from the BA.2 lineage, and since it has an R in it, it’s a recombinant pressure.
Gregory believes that the brand new naming system remains to be doing the trick, even with out the dramatic connotations of Krakens and Minotaurs. ”Individuals are referring to Arcturus,” he says, “and presumably discovering it useful to speak about this specific variant.” Although Gregory believes it will possibly simply work alongside and bolster Pango, the official teams which are seen because the authorities in such decision-making, such because the WHO and the U.S. Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention, have but to undertake the crew’s new system or any of its terminology. Certainly, on Apr. 21, Maria Van Kerkhove, a WHO epidemiologist and the company’s COVID-19 technical lead, tweeted on the finish of a thread about XBB.1.16, “We’re not utilizing nicknames for these subvariants, and I might kindly encourage you to not. Please.” Gregory shared the tweet alongside a picture displaying “Arcturus” trending on Twitter.
He has some extent. Past Twitter, the nicknames are getting used broadly within the media and have even appeared in analysis papers and scientific journals. It’s a tug-of-war unlikely to finish anytime quickly, given how shortly the virus—and the way individuals confer with it—proceed to vary.
Extra Should-Reads From TIME