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Why not pi? The coronavirus continues to mutate, but we stay in omicron


More than a year has passed since the WHO gave a variant a Greek letter name — omicron — creating a communication gap that some experts believe may be hampering public health efforts amid the rapid spread of the disease. its variant XBB.1.5.

New omicron subvariant causes most covid cases in the US 4:02

(CNN) --

You may have heard that there's a new sub-variant of omicron that's quickly gaining traction in the United States.

You might want to ask your doctor about her or look up more information online, but what was her name?


It is known to scientists as XBB.1.5, a name given to it because it is the second generation of the omicron recombinant XBB subvariant.

X is scientists' name for a recombinant, the result of two viruses that have swapped sections of their genetic material.

The BB part is alphabetical order only.

The first known recombinant was named XA, the second XB, and so on.

Now, they've gone through the alphabet and are doubling down: XAA, XAB, all the way to XBB.

But it hadn't always been so complicated.


  • New omicron subvariant is positioned as one of the major causes of covid-19 in the US.

In May 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that to enable better public communication and avoid the stigma of naming new variants after the countries where they were first detected, it would assign Greek letters to viruses that had acquired mutations. that made them more transmissible, helped them evade current therapies, or made them more severe.

The WHO said it would give these new names to the viruses that its experts had designated as variants of interest or the most important variants of concern.

That gave us the familiar alpha, beta, gamma, and delta, as well as a host of others that only became regionally important, like epsilon, theta, and mu.

However, it's been more than a year since the WHO gave a variant a Greek letter name, creating a communication gap that some experts believe may be hampering public health efforts.

Where are the Greek letters?

When omicron, also known as BA.1, circled the globe starting in November 2021, it was so genetically different from previous variants of the virus that its branch of the SARS-CoV-2 family tree went in an entirely different direction.

Our immune system barely recognized any of it.

BA.1 spawned new waves of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, as well as a host of new subvariants.

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At the time, the scientists argued that the second omicron variant, BA.2, with dozens of new gene mutations, was as genetically distinct from BA.1 as alpha, gamma, and delta had been from each other.

Some said they thought BA.2 deserved its own Greek letter.

However, that never happened.

Instead, the WHO stopped designating categories of variants of concern or variants of interest that required new Greek names.

Instead, he created a new category, omicron subvariants under surveillance, to tell public health officials which of these leads should be watched, which closely resembled the reasons for designating variants of interest and variants of concern originally.

The organization has left the door open to renaming if it feels a variant is different enough, but apparently hasn't seen the need to do so in over a year.

However, the coronavirus continued to evolve, becoming more transmissible and more immune-evasive over time.

These changes have also had consequences.

Because omicron mutated, for example, immunosuppressed patients lost the possibility of undergoing key therapies such as that generated by the preventive drug Evusheld, which generates long-acting antibodies.

All the monoclonal antibodies developed to help people with severe covid-19 infections have lost strength against the latest subvariants.

The mRNA vaccines have also been updated in an attempt to better protect people from the currently circulating viruses that cause covid-19.

Still, the WHO says it sees no need to name the new subvariants.

"The fact that many individual (sub)variants do not have their own label does not make them any less important," WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said in an emailed statement.

“A new label (i.e., a new assignment of a variant of concern) would be granted if there was a variant sufficiently different in its public health impact to require a change in public health response,” he wrote. Lindmeier.

A false sense of security

Some scientists say they agree with this strategy.

"Actually, I'm okay with not giving new Greek letters to omicron subvariants," Michael Worobey, a computational biologist who studies pandemics through viral genomics and viral evolution at the University of California, wrote in an email to CNN. Arizona.

Worobey points out that there are two ways in which the new coronavirus has been changing over time.

The first is by moving, continuing to circulate, and infecting people around the world.

This type of evolution occurs more gradually and usually does not cause many major changes at the same time.

The second way that viruses change is by camping, that is, by chronically infecting people with impaired immune function.

A person in Houston was tested in October and found to be infected with a version of the delta variant that acquired 17 mutations in its genome, Worobey said.

There is another patient in Spain with almost the same number of mutations.

  • XBB.1.5 may be "the most transmissible sub-variant of omicron to date," scientists warn

Worobey says these viruses have the potential to create another kind of omicron-level emergency, and it's okay if pi isn't named until one of these zombie viruses emerges and begins to spread.

However, others think that the WHO's change in strategy could be misleading.

“The variants within omicron are really pronounced and distinctive.

Not that omicron is a single thing at all.

It evolved tremendously,” said Bette Korber, a lab fellow and variant specialist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Korber says that even when omicron emerged, it had two "parents," BA.1 and BA.2., which in turn continued to evolve, so the scientists recorded more than 650 subvariants and sublineages within the omicron strain.

“But the WHO stopped naming them at this point, so [people] have a false sense of security,” Korber said.

Continuing to use the name omicron makes it seem like the virus is no longer changing, "but in fact, it is changing enormously."

Korber said he's been to public lectures where "very good doctors" said, "Well, now it's not evolving anymore. There was only omicron for over a year, so you don't have to worry about that anymore.'"

In search of better ways to communicate

Ryan Gregory, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Guelph in Canada, says that without new Greek letter names, we lost the ability to communicate simply when referring to the virus.

"If you ask 'what's that rustling in the bush?'

and someone else says 'a mammal', that might not be a particularly helpful answer, right? Not enough information."

Scientific names for sublineages like BQ.1.1 are very precise, he explained, but they quickly become unwieldy.

It's like calling the bush mammal by its Latin name,

Mus musculus


“What we lack is the equivalent, in animal and plant taxonomy, of the common name.

So if you ask 'what is that' and I answer 'is it a mouse or a rat', you'll know exactly what I'm talking about,” he said.

It's so frustrating for scientists to discuss subvariants that Gregory decided to come up with his own nickname for XBB.1.5: Kraken, after the mythological sea monster.

He is not the first to take on that task.

Before Kraken, sub-variant BA.2.75 was nicknamed Centarus by social media users.

It was a success.

  • The WHO expressed concern about the growth of the omicron variant XBB.1.5

Gregory says the names became popular because they serve a purpose, allowing people to have discussions and reflect on the virus, its changes, and how it might affect them.

But it is not a perfect solution, since it is not standardized.

If you mention Kraken to someone who isn't on Twitter, they might not know what you're talking about.

“I would really prefer that we don't need names because we don't see the constant evolution of many more variants that we still need to pay attention to.

That would be the best because it would mean that we have mitigated the virus,” Gregory said.

But a second option would be a formal naming system run by appropriate groups used specifically for communication, with the goal of keeping people up to date, he said.

"Not to cause a panic, obviously, but to keep people informed and not get lost in obviously technical stuff."


Source: cnnespanol

All news articles on 2023-01-13

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