From 'Kraken' to 'Centaurus': Scientists at odds on unofficial names for omicron subvariants

Basilisk. Centaurus. And now, Kraken. As the omicron strain has splintered off into what seems like endless sublineages, the technical numerical names have become increasingly difficult to commit to memory, making way for unofficial nicknames like Basilisk, Centaurus and now, Kraken. 

Some scientists have assigned the unofficial names to omicron subvariants in hopes the language will stick and make it easier for people to keep track of and communicate about the strains, versus the strings of numbers and letters known as the Pango system. Last summer, news outlets began referring to BA.2.75 as "Centaurus" after the name, which refers to a galaxy, began circulating on Twitter. Now, XBB.1.5, the latest omicron subvariant experts are keeping a close eye on, has been nicknamed "Kraken." 

In a Jan. 9 piece for The Atlantic, Jacob Stern featured insight from T. Ryan Gregory, PhD, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Guelph in Canada who is among a small group of scientists behind nicknames for a slew of omicron subvariants. Dr. Gregory said the purpose of the nicknames is to bridge the gap between complex scientific names for omicron subvariants that don't warrant their own Greek letter under the World Health Organization's naming system and common language. Mr. Stern of The Atlantic summarized it this way: 

"Calling a variant by its Pango name, like calling an animal by its Latinate species designation, is highly descriptive but a bit unwieldy in common parlance. When we speak of farm animals that moo and produce milk, we speak not of mammals or of Bos taurus but of cows."

Still, other experts are critical of the nicknames, claiming they stir up fear and unnecessary panic. An official with the World Health Organization said the unofficial names are not necessary, since different omicron sublineages shouldn't require different mitigation measures among the public. 

"Virologists and other scientists are monitoring these variants, but the public doesn't need to distinguish between these omicron subvariants in order to better understand their risk or the measures they need to take to protect themselves," WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told The Atlantic. "If there is a new variant that requires public communication and discourse … it would be designated a new variant of concern and assigned a new label." 


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