20 H / 501Y.V2.
These are some of the cool names that scientists have come up with for a new version of the coronavirus found in South Africa. The tangled lines of letters, numbers, and dots are profoundly meaningful to the scholars who developed them, but how could anyone keep them straight? Even the simplest to remember, B.1.351, refers to a completely different strain of the virus if one point is missed or misplaced.
Virus naming conventions were good as long as the versions remained esoteric topics of research. But they are now a source of concern for billions of people. They need names that roll the tongue without tarnishing people or places related to them.
“It’s hard to come up with clear names that are informative, do not include geographical references, are kind of pronounced, are memorable,” said Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland. “It seems a bit simple, but in fact it is a very big request to try to convey all this information.”
According to him, the solution, by other experts, is to create a single system that everyone will use, but to connect it with a more technical system that scientists rely on. The World Health Organization has invited a working group of dozens of experts to do this in a simple, large-scale way.
“This new system will name a number of worrying options that are easy to pronounce and recall, as it will reduce unnecessary negative impacts on nations, economies and peoples,” the WHO said in a statement. “The proposal for this mechanism is currently being finalized by internal and external partners.”
So far, the leading candidate for the WTO, according to the two members of the working group, is disarmed, numbering their decision options: V1, V2, V3, etc.
“There are thousands, thousands of variants, we need to label them,” said Trevor Bedford, a member of the Evolutionary Biology Working Group at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Naming diseases has not always been difficult. Syphilis, for example, consists of 1530 poems in which Apollo is cursed by the god Shepherd, Syphilus. But a sophisticated microscope invented in the 1600s uncovered a hidden world of microbes, allowing scientists to name their eggs after them, says Richard Barnett, a British historian of science.
Still racism և imperialism penetrated the names of diseases. In the 1800s, when cholera spread from the Indian subcontinent to Europe, British newspapers began to call it “Indian cholera”, describing the disease as a turban և clothing figure.
“The name can often reflect the spread of the stigma,” said Dr. Barnett.
In 2015, the WHO released the best practice for naming diseases. Avoid geographical locations or names of people, animals or foods և unnecessarily frightening terms such as “fatal” և “epidemic”.
Scholars rely on at least three competing nomenclature systems: Gisaid, Pango և Nextstrain, each of which makes sense in its own world.
“You can’t go back to something you didn’t name,” said Oliver Pibus, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford who helped design the Pango system.
Scientists call variants when genome changes coincide with new outbreaks, but they only draw attention to them if there is a change in their behavior if they are more easily transmitted, for example (B.1.1.7. seen in Britain), or if they at least partially bypass the immune response (B.1.351, version found in South Africa).
The origin of the version is encoded in chaotic letters և digits. For example, “B.1” means that these options are related to the outbreak in Italy last spring. (When the hierarchy of options becomes too deep to fit another և point, the new ones are given the next letter available in alphabetical order).
But when scientists announced that a version called B.1.315, which was a two-digit subtraction of the first species in the Republic of South Africa, was spreading in the United States, the South African Minister of Health was “quite confused” by its “B.1.351”. Oliveira, geneticist at Durres Nelson Mandela Medical School, member of the WHO working group.
“We need to create a system that not only evolutionary biologists can understand,” he said.
With no easy alternatives, people have turned to B.1.351 as the “South African version”. But Dr. de Oliveira asked his colleagues to avoid the term. (Look no further for the origin of this virus, calling it the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” that transmits xenophobia to people of East Asian descent around the world.)
The potential damage is so severe that some countries will not be persuaded to come forward when a new pathogen is discovered. Geographical names are also rapidly becoming obsolete. B.1.351 is now in 48 countries, so it is absurd to call it the South African version, added Dr. de Oliveira.
And practice can distort science. It is not clear that the version originated in South Africa. It was largely discovered through the diligence of South African scientists, but calling it a variant of that country may confuse other researchers, ignoring its possible route to South Africa, another country that sequenced fewer coronavirus genomes.
In the last few weeks, the introduction of a new system has become a sport for the audience. ” Some of the suggestions to inspire the name. Storms, Greek letters, birds, other animal names, such as red squirrel or trunk, etc. local monsters,
Áine O’Toole, a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh, who is part of the Pango team, suggested colors to show how different constellations are related.
“You can get powdery pink or measles or fuchsia,” he said.
Sometimes, identifying a new version can be enough, especially when mutations get whimsical names. Last spring, Ms. O’Toole և and her colleagues began calling the D614G, one of the earliest known mutations, Doug.
“We would not have a huge amount of human interaction,” he said. “This was our sense of humor in Block # 1.”
Other nicknames followed. For the Nelly N501Y, a general guideline for many newer versions; for the Eeek E484K, a mutation that the virus is thought to be less susceptible to vaccines.
But Eeek has appeared in many versions at the same time, emphasizing the need for clear version names.
The numbering system that the WHO is discussing is simple. But any new name must overcome the ease and simplicity of geographical labeling for the general public. And scholars need to strike a balance between labeling a variant so quickly that it prevents geographical names from being so careful not to end up naming insignificant variants.
“What I do not want is a system where we have a long list of these options, all of which have WHO names, but in reality only three of them are possible and the other 17 are not,” said Dr. Bedford.
Whatever the final system, it must be accepted by different groups of scholars, as well as by the general public.
“As long as one does not really become a kind of Franco language, it will make it even more confusing,” said Dr. Hodgeft. “If you do not find something that people can easily say, type, and easily remember, they will simply go back to using a geographical name.”