‘New coronavirus variants could be named after star constellations once letters of the Greek alphabet are exhausted, a senior World Health Organization official has suggested.
In an interview with the Telegraph Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical chief for Covid-19, said the UN health agency was already looking at new names for mutations amid fears there will be more concerning variants than the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.
That system was introduced in late May and so far 11 mutations have been named: four variants of concern, including delta and beta; four variants of interest, such as eta and lambda; plus epsilon, zeta and theta, thought to be “of interest” but since downgraded.
But as the coronavirus continues to mutate, it is possible there will be more key strains than available letters.
Dr Van Kerkhove said star constellations are the current frontrunner to follow the Greek alphabet, suggesting we could one day see variants known as Aries, Gemini or Orion.
Several alternatives have already been dismissed, including Greek gods and goddesses – partly due to concerns about pronunciation.
“We will possibly run out of the Greek alphabet, but we’re already looking at the next series of names,” said Dr Van Kerkhove, who first requested a colloquial naming system last year to prevent variants being linked to places – a practice deemed discriminatory by the WHO.
“We’re actually considering star constellations,” she added. “We were going to go with Greek gods or goddesses, and I said please, please don’t make me say that publicly.”
The next choice – which won’t affect the scientific names of Sars-Cov-2 variants – could be announced “relatively quickly”. Currently the virus evolution working group and the WHO’s legal team are double checking proposals to “make sure we don’t upset anyone with these names”, Dr Van Kerkhove said.
It comes as efforts to track new variants are ramped up across the globe, amid concerns that a mutation could emerge which evades existing vaccines.
“It’s a real threat,” said Dr Van Kerkhove. “It’s certainly possible that you could have mutations that will evade our countermeasures… and that’s why it’s so critical that we just don’t rely only on vaccines, that we do everything we can to really drive transmission down.”
Speaking from the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva after her first holiday since the coronavirus emerged 19 months ago, the epidemiologist added that a dangerous new variant is more likely to emerge in three instances.
In areas with intense transmission rates; in animal populations, for instance in mink farms; and in places with high vaccination rates where the virus is still circulating widely.
Yet gaping “blind spots” in the global surveillance network remain, with much of the world still relying on patchy testing and limited sequencing capacity – especially in Africa and parts of South America, Dr Van Kerkhove said, pointing to a map hanging in her office.
Accelerating efforts to close these gaps will be essential, not just to curb the spread of concerning new variants before they become dominant, but to better prepare for ‘disease X’ – an as-yet-unidentified pathogen with the potential to trigger another pandemic.
“Our blind spots are reducing, but there’s a long way to go,” Dr Van Kerkhove said. “We’re trying to harness the world’s energy, expertise, capacities and financing – because there’s a lot of money in this area right now – to make sure we support and nurture what has started.
“It’s a catalytic moment right now in terms of surveillance, in terms of sequencing – not only for Sars-Cov-2, but for the next ‘disease X’, and for all these emerging and re-emerging pathogens that we’re tracking,” she added.
“The next ‘disease X’ is out there, so how do we leverage this traumatic experience that the world is going through for infectious pathogens?
But variants are not what keeps Dr Van Kerkhove awake at night, “it’s complacency” – reinforced by a sense of endlessly “screaming into the wind”.
“It’s the notion that it’s over for some and not for others – that the ‘haves’ can just go back to their lives, and forget about the ‘have nots’,” she said.
“I feel incredibly frustrated right now that we’re in this situation that we’re in 19 months in, when we know what to do when, we know how to do it – we just don’t have the collective will to,” Dr Van Kerkhove added.
“And then on the other hand, I feel very hopeful because I know that we can do this, I know that the global community could actually come together and get to a point where we remove the severe disease, the deaths.
“I feel very extreme in this situation – with just extreme hopefulness and, you know, deep despair,” she said. “I wish I knew [when the pandemic would end].”’