Paths to Wisdom and Calling COVID Variants by Their Right Names

Every time a new COVID variant arises, there is always a debate about whether it should be given a new name. It gets rather acrimonious (which is par for the course on Xitter anyway). But, as someone who actually spends far too much time professionally thinking about nomenclature and the like, the goal of a nomenclature system (formal or informal) should be to serve the needs of the people who use it.

As some asshole with a blog wrote over a year ago:

With multiple reports of reinfection of people who were infected with older Omicron variants now being reinfected with the newer Omicron subvariants, we really need to unleash a new Greek letter (depending on the immunology, perhaps more than one. MOAR LETTERZ!). As long as we call these antigenically different subvariants ‘Omicron’, lots of people who were infected over the late fall or early winter will believe–incorrectly–that they’re protected from the newer Omicron variants.

In light of recent reports that the protection afforded by infection by an older variant doesn’t necessarily confer immunity to newer variants, and might even increase the risk of infection, we should define variants in such a way that prevents people from believing a previous infection confers immunity–when that is actually happening.

This, of course, would require ‘rapid immunology’, something that hasn’t really been established in a comprehensive way by any federal agency, so it’s unclear how previous variants protect against the newer ones. That said, when we see spike (and other) proteins that seem very different, it’s probably worth erring on the side of caution, and giving it a new name.

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