Kraken, Centaurus, Basilisk: Meet the biologist changing the way we talk about covid-19 variants
We spoke to Professor Ryan Gregory, the man giving new strains a mythological moniker to aid public understanding of the evolving virus.
A new variant of covid-19, known as XBB.1.5, is now one of the most widely-identified strains of the virus in the United States and has been linked to a surge in case numbers. Nicknamed ‘Kraken’, the variant is responsible for more than 70% of new cases in the northeast and has now been detected in at least 37 other countries.
As well as presenting a new challenge for health officials, the variant may also reflect a change in how we talk about covid-19, three years after the virus first sparked global concern.
The name Kraken is one of a number of mythological monikers proposed by Professor Ryan Gregory of the University of Guelph’s Department of Integrated Biology. He is part of an online community rethinking how the pandemic is discussed and how new variants are tracked across the world. We spoke to Professor Gregory to get the lowdown on this new direction…
Experts hope to simplify the ‘variant soup’
The pandemic is a global health emergency unlike anything in living memory and it has brought a new imperative for experts to communicate effectively with the public. Throughout the pandemic there has been no shortage of official briefings, expensive advertising campaigns and public health messaging to keep people up to date with vital information.
But, as Professor Gregory outlines, the best way to inform the population has changed as the biological make-up of the virus has evolved.
“For the first two and a half years of the pandemic, we were mostly talking about one variant at a time. First the ‘wild type’ virus – like the original version that originated in Wuhan, China – and then the variants that received Greek letter names from the World Health Organization.”
But while we all became familiar with Alpha, Delta, and Omicron, the WHO has not assigned any new Greek letters for over a year.
Professor Gregory explains: “The variants that are circulating now are members of what has become a very large evolutionary group, all still called Omicron. It’s no longer about individual variants; now we have an entire ‘variant soup’. There are more than 650 ‘Omicron’ lineages that have been identified.”
Scientists have continued to categorise new strains as they’re identified, but to a layperson names like XBB.1.5, BQ.1.1 and BA.5.2.48 can seem rather cryptic. Professor Gregory and others decided that a new language of the pandemic was required.
Mythological names could offer real-world solution
Given the unpredictable nature of the covid-19 pandemic, institutions like public health services and governmental bodies have struggled to communicate effectively with the public at times. Professor Gregory, along with Twitter user Xabier Ostale and other contributors, reused an age-old scientific principle to simplify things.
Professor Gregory explains: “If, for example, you asked me what was moving around in the bushes and I said, “It’s a mammal”, that wouldn’t be very helpful. But likewise if I said, “It’s either Mus musculus or Rattus norvegicus,” that might also not be useful.”
“With animals and plants, we have higher level group names and we have Latin species names for everything, but we also have common names, which are informal but useful in general conversation. If you asked me what was in the bushes and I said, “It’s either a mouse or a rat,” you’d know what I meant right away.”
“Nicknames were meant to fill the same sort of gap between high level groups and confusing technical names for hundreds of subvariants.”
It was Ostale who forwarded the first nickname, christening the BA.2.75 variant as ‘Centaurus’. That arbitrary name is shared both with a astronomical constellation and a creature from Greek mythology. Professor Gregory suggested they stick with the mythological names to dovetail with the WHO’s system of Greek lettering.
There are now more than 20 nicknames, all drawn from mythical lore, that the group have given to notable variants of covid-19 in a bid to aid understanding of new outbreaks. The first nickname, Centaurus, was picked up by a few academic and news publications, but it was the surge of the Kraken variant in the past month that has heightened awareness of the new effort.
“That nickname has caught on,” Professor Gregory admits. “It has led to some important conversations about scientific communication and has reminded people about the importance of continuing to protect ourselves from the virus.”
As of yet there is no indication from governmental bodies or the WHO that there will be widespread institutional adoption of the mythical names. But as we confront this new stage of the pandemic, communication efforts will also have to evolve to keep up with changing circumstances.