Although the emergence of new variants from previously circulating variants remains possible, Omicron viruses now account for more than 98% of publicly available sequences, making them the most likely source of future SARS-CoV-2 variants. WHO emphasised that these changes do not imply that the circulation of Omicron viruses no longer pose a threat to public health.
The WHO’s Greek naming scheme has come under increasing scrutiny
The World Health Organization is investigating a new COVID variant called “Arcturus,” which is likely causing a new surge of cases in at least 34 countries. The subvariant of Omicron, XBB.1.16, has been named “Arcturus” by SARS-CoV-2 variant trackers and is very similar to the U.S. dominant “Kraken” XBB.1.5, which is the most transmissible COVID variant yet, according to Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead, at a news conference on March 29, 2023.
Arguably, the omnipresent Omicron may have thrown the WHO’s COVID-19 variant naming system into disarray. Omicron’s rapid growth has made it increasingly difficult for ordinary people to keep up with the dizzying array of subvariants it has created. The WHO originally intended to simplify public communications by assigning Greek letters to variants it deemed threatening. For example, the WHO classified “Kraken” XBB.1.5 and “Arcturus” XBB.1.16 as Variants of Interest (VOIs) on January 11 and April 17 of this year, respectively. However, because “Kraken”, “Arcturus”, and “Centaurus” (BA.2.75, a Variants Under Monitoring (VUM)) are Latinized words, they would cause the WHO’s Greek naming scheme per se to fall apart.
- World Health Organization. Tracking SARS-CoV-2 variants. https://www.who.int/activities/tracking-SARS-CoV-2-variants
- World Health Organization. WHO announces simple, easy-to-say labels for SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Interest and Concern. https://www.who.int/news/item/31-05-2021-who-announces-simple-easy-to-say-labels-for-sars-cov-2-variants-of-interest-and-concern
- Genomic epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 with subsampling focused globally over the past 6 months.https://nextstrain.org/ncov/gisaid/global/6m?d=tree,entropy,frequencies&p=full