A new Covid-19 variant has been discovered in the African country Botswana, and the World Health Organization has already declared it a “variant of concern,” and with that, given it a name from the Greek alphabet: Omicron.
The decision from WHO to name this new mutation of the coronavirus after a letter from the Greek alphabet follows a precedent. In fact, the organization adopted the practice a year into the pandemic, deciding to name each new variant of concern after a Greek letter in May of 2021.
WHO believes that using letters from the Greek alphabet gives variants memorable and easily pronounceable names. Each variant still retains its “scientific” name, which is comprised of letters and numbers: Omicrons is B.1.1.529. But WHO hopes that using the Greek alphabet will make the variants visible and recognizable across cultures, making for names that laypeople can retain effortlessly.
The system also plays a crucial political role amidst the global pandemic– the use of the ancient alphabet relieves the specific regions where variants are discovered from stigma. Instead of being formally recognized as the “Botswana variant,” B.1.1.529 will be known as the Omicron variant, shifting the focus on the variant itself rather than casting shame on the area it happened to appear first in.
But the Greek alphabet is finite, only containing 24 letters, and the Covid variants seem to keep coming: WHO has already gotten halfway through the entire list of letters, with twelve variants of concern being given Greek names.
The 12 variants include Alpha, Beta, Delta, Delta plus, Gamma, Epsilon, Eta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu, and now, Omicron.
The Omicron variant has a startling number of mutations
Omicron had mutated a total of 32 times when it was first discovered in Botswana, a country in Southern Africa. The strain has since been found in neighboring South Africa, with one case in a traveler returning home to Hong Kong after visiting the continent. There are a total of 22 cases that have been confirmed to be the Omicron strain.
Omicron’s many mutations have led scientists to believe that the strain could potentially resist the vaccine and evade antibodies.
Although the strain’s spread has been limited, experts around the world are sounding the alarm over the sheer number of mutations in the variant’s spike protein: “the incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern,” said virologist Dr. Tom Peacock.
Peacock later tweeted that it “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile,” but that this intense evolution may not necessarily mean that the strain is highly transmissible, and it could just amount to an “odd cluster.”
The variant was first discovered in Botswana earlier this month on November 11. Scientists are currently monitoring the variant before raising wider concerns about its spread.