How virus variants get their confusing names—and why that’s changing
Right now we're stuck with jumbles of letters and numbers, or country names that stigmatize people from that region. Experts announced a new plan to fix that.
Coronavirus variant names are strange and complicated. Sure, B.1.1.7 or P.1 might be perfectly fine names when virologists and microbiologists need to keep track of them—but they’re not so useful for the public trying to make sense of the variants driving new COVID-19 surges.
Take it from Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist and former chair of South Africa’s COVID-19 advisory committee. He helped name the variant that was first discovered in the country: 501Y.V2, which, confusingly, is also known as B.1.351 and 20H/501Y.V2.
“Who wants to keep saying 501Y.V2?” Abdool Karim says. “501Y.V2 is such a mouthful to say. It’s a terrible name. You wouldn’t want to call your child 501Y.V2.”
Abdool Karim says it’s understandable that so many