What’s in a name? Group behind SAR-CoV-2 variants’ nicknames hopes to bring science closer to people

Giving nicknames to viral variants is meant to help clarify communication about an increasingly complex situation, says Canadian evolutionary biologist Ryan Gregory

May 13, 2023 08:26 pm | Updated 08:26 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Recombination in SARS-CoV-2 viruses. Photo used for representation purpose only.

Recombination in SARS-CoV-2 viruses. Photo used for representation purpose only. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A diverse group of people including evolutionary biologists, historians, teachers, citizen scientists and variant trackers from around the world, having connected over social media to provide nicknames to SARS-CoV-2’s many variants, are now actively looking at doing the same with other widespread viruses. Their aim is to bring science, and the communication around it, closer to the public. 

With their initiative, they hope that the public will become more aware of viruses, how they behave and how best to prevent their possible spread.

Aided and inspired by Greek mythology and even constellations, the now popular Omicron variants’ nicknames include Gryphon (XBB), Hippogryph (XBB.1), Kraken (XBB.1.5) and Arcturus (XBB.1.16).

While there is no messing around with the scientific names allotted by World Health Organisation (WHO), these nicknames “are meant to help clarify communication about an increasingly complex variant situation’’, said evolutionary biologist T. Ryan Gregory, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, Canada.

Dr. Gregory is part of the group that came together informally through discussion on social media to give the nicknames to SAR-CoV-2 variants. The group has participants from the U.S., U.K., India, Canada, Japan, and China.

The group claims that following SAR-CoV-2 they are now also “interested in what’s happening with H5N1 influenza”. “What is true is that so far, the real need for clarity is with SAR-CoV-2 and additionally there is a lot more data available for COVID. In comparison there is a lot less information for other viruses,’’ said Dr. Gregory.

But how did this trend of nicknames originate during the devastating pandemic? In July 2022, social media user and amateur COVID commentator Xabier Ostale decided to nickname the variant BA.2.75 ‘Centaurus’. This was used in some media reports, and helped to distinguish it from the many other Omicron variants circulating at the time.

Mr. Ostale says the motive behind nicknaming the variant was simple. “During that phase new variants were being discovered and there was panic and confusion among the public. The nickname was aimed purely at making information more palatable and ensuring that it brings around conversation and awareness among the public,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, WHO along with national agencies, has emphasised the need to work together to track and alert the world on being prepared for any new emerging disease and encouraged conversations against better management and prevention.

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