Scientists warn that a new coronavirus variant, dubbed Omicron, has the makings of a “super-contagious” virus. Here’s a quick look at how we got here, and how the new variant name came to be.
Earlier viral outbreaks in history finally named after the country where they were first detected – for example, the “Spanish flu” Which decreased the world on the afternoon of the First World War, a century ago. From the beginning of the current pandemic, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been careful to avoid such labeling. The virus itself was designated SARS-COV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus-2), and the disease it causes became Coronavirus disease 2019, or Covid-19.
As the virus mutated, as viruses do, new strains that arose were initially named, as per tradition, after countries where they were detected, which led to reports of the virus. “South African variant” Or d “Indian tension.” But the WHO did so at the end of May 2021, rolling out a system based on the Greek alphabet.
The stated purpose was to make variants take “Simple [and] Easy to say and remember. ” Another objective was to avoid call variants through their detection places, which the WHO said “Stigmatizing and discriminatory.” So, although health experts continue to refer to variants by their scientific designation, the rest of us get to deal with the alpha, delta, and now omicron.
The WHO has divided the virus strains into three categories: variants of concern (VOC), variants of interest (VOI), and variants under monitoring (VUM). Only the first two categories get Greek names. Since the discovery of the new variant designated Omicron, there are five official VOXs and two VOIs (Lambda and Mu), with the remainder counted as VUMs. This is different from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorization, which listed only Delta as a VOC, and the rest as VUMs.
Alpha: the original mutation
The first documented mutation of the virus was designated in December 2020 and later dubbed Alpha (B.1.1.7). First detected in the UK earlier that year, it was estimated to be 40 to 80% more transmissible than the original virus, but caused no difference in overall mortality.
Beta: Three new spikes
The beta strain (B.1.351) was actually detected in South African samples from May 2020, but was officially designated by the WHO only six months later, at the same time as Alpha. It has three mutations in the spike region, and is considered 20-30% more transmissible.
Gamma: Still deadlier
First recorded in Brazil in November 2020, the gamma variant (p.1) has 17 amino acid substitutions, 10 of which are in the spike protein, and three of which are thought to be a concern. It was designated in January 2021, and is said to be up to 38% more transmissible and up to 50% deadlier than the original virus.
Delta: Red alert
Variant B.1.617.2, known as Delta, was first detected in India. Designated in May 2021, it was until recently the most strained of the virus. It has up to 17 mutations, including sub-lineages, and is counted as 97% more transmissible, causing 85% more hospitalizations and a 150% uptick in mortality, on average.
Omicron: new fear
The just-designated variant, called Omicron, or B.1.1.529, has a huge 32 mutations of the spike protein, which raises fears that it will be resistant to existing vaccines. Fewer than 100 cases have been detected so far, but it has reportedly already reached Europe from its initial nexus in South Africa.
It was unclear why the WHO chose to go with Omicron, because the next letters in the Greek alphabet due to variant designation are Nu and Xi, both of which were skipped.