Each day seemingly unveils a fresh variant of the virus that causes Covid-19. These variants – may be worthy of concern or simply stoke scientific curiosity, but they carry some industrial-strength technical names such as B117 or B1351.
And as the list grows bulkier, even the scientists need some respite, so some have developed nicknames such as Nelly or designated a bird species to refer to particular mutations or variants.
“There’s certainly been no dearth of things to name in the last month or so. As long as these [monikers] are useful for scientists – there’s no harm in it. It’s more a question of, I think, how do we standardise these to make sure that everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about,” said Dr Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist from the University of Bern.
With no consensus on nomenclature, the media and policymakers have filled the gap – referring to variants by the regions in which they were discovered. But viruses do not respect geographical borders, and scientists stress that countries have different levels of genomic surveillance; discovery in a particular area is no guarantee the variant developed there.
“These terms risk creating stigma, disincentivise honest reporting on new viral variants, and encourage an overemphasis on travel sanctions as a means of pandemic management … New viruses, variants, or pathogens present a global challenge, not a local one; naming must reflect that,” said Dr Katie Baca, a historian of science and medicine at Harvard University.
A recent attempt to develop a naming system by the World Health Organization did not bear fruit. Then again, no epidemic has seen this frenzied level of viral sequencing.
Hodcroft, who is part of Nextstrain – a Sars-CoV-2 naming effort that called the variant discovered in Kent 20I/501Y.V1, is the lead author of a recent study that investigated seven virus variants carrying the same mutation in the US. As part of the research process, she gave each variant an avian moniker: such as Pelican, Quail and Mockingbird.
These nicknames work well in the short term, but are hardly a long-term solution, given the rate at which new variants and mutations are emerging, she cautioned.
“And if you’re gaining all these extra birds, you’re soon going to have a zoo! I mean, you’re not able to remember which one is ‘Kingfisher’ and which one is ‘Pigeon’. There is something to be said for the more technical names that … incorporate some information [such as a description of a mutation] into the name,” she said.
“If I tried to completely switch over to using nicknames for a 100 variants, we’d be just as mixed up as everyone else.”
Áine O’Toole, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh who is one of the developers of another system used to name viral lineages, found herself discussing a mutation associated with enhanced transmissibility, D614G, often with colleagues.
“And you can imagine, it was quite a mouthful. So, we started to call this D to G mutation ‘Doug’, and then any of the other virus sequences that didn’t have this mutation … we called ‘Douglas’, so it was sort of a bit of a private joke within the lab,” she said. “As more mutations came about, we’d come up with a person’s name for them.”
For instance, N501Y, the mutation that makes the variant discovered in Kent so transmissible, was fondly called “Nelly”. E484K – the mutation causing vaccine escape fears – ended up being christened “Eeek”.
“It was originally going to be called Eric, but we work with someone called Eric quite a lot so we didn’t want to necessarily overlap the name of that mutation with someone we knew,” she said.
A standardised naming system, at least for variants of concern, would be helpful for the public, the researchers said.
“Maybe something like hurricane naming systems would certainly be an improvement from referring to the geography,” said O’Toole. “But for me, the scientific name has been very useful, and I’m going to continue to use it.”