Of particular concern is the upcoming pandemic of “disease X.”
In an interview with The Telegraph, WHO technical director for COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, said that the World Health Organization is already considering new names for coronavirus mutations amid fears that there will be more than 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.
This naming system for new variants of the virus was introduced at the end of May, and so far, 11 mutations have been named: four “worrying” variants, including the Delta and Beta variants; four “interesting” variants, such as Eta and Lambda; as well as Epsilon, Zeta and Theta, which were considered “interesting” variants, but have since been downgraded.
But as the coronavirus continues to mutate, there may be more key strains than there are letters in the Greek alphabet.
Dr. Maria van Kerkhove said that constellations would help to continue naming new variants of COVID-19 when the Greek letters run out, so we can expect that variants are known as Aries, Gemini, or Orion will appear.
Some alternatives have already been rejected, including Greek gods and goddesses – partly due to concerns about pronunciation.
“We may run out of the Greek alphabet, but we are already considering the next series of names,” said Dr. van Kerkhove, who first requested a system of colloquial names last year to prevent linking coronavirus variants to specific geographical locations – a practice considered discriminatory by the WHO.
“We are really looking at stellar constellations,” she added. – We were going to try it with Greek gods or goddesses, and I said, please don’t make me say this in public.”
The next choice – which will not affect the scientific names of the Sars-Cov-2 variants-can be announced: “relatively quickly.” Currently, the working group on the evolution of viruses and the WHO legal team are double-checking the proposals to “make sure that we do not upset anyone with these names,” said Dr. van Kerkhove.
This comes as efforts to track new variants intensify around the world amid fears that a mutation may occur that will elude existing vaccines.
“This is a real threat,” admits Maria van Kerkhove. – Of course, it is possible that mutations may appear that will allow us to avoid our countermeasures… and therefore it is so important that we do not rely only on vaccines, that we do everything possible to really reduce transmission.”
Speaking at WHO headquarters in Geneva after her first vacation since the coronavirus appeared 19 months ago, the epidemiologist added that a dangerous new variant is more likely to appear in three cases: in areas with a high transmission rate; in animal populations, for example, on mink farms; and in places with high vaccination rates, where the virus is still widely circulating.
However, there are still blind spots in the global surveillance network, and most of the world still relies on heterogeneous testing and limited sequencing capabilities – especially in Africa and parts of South America,” said Dr. Maria van Kerkhove.
Accelerating efforts to address these gaps will be important to contain the spread of new variants of concern before they become dominant and better prepare for “disease X” – an as yet unidentified pathogen that could trigger a new pandemic.
“Our blind spots are shrinking, but there is still a long way to go,” predicts Dr. van Kerkhove. – We are trying to use the world’s energy, experience, opportunities, and funding – because there is a lot of money in this area now – to make sure that we support and develop what has started. This is a catalytic moment right now in terms of surveillance, in terms of sequencing – not only for Sars-Cov-2 but also for the next” disease X,” as well as for all these emerging and re-emerging pathogens that we are tracking.”
What particularly bothers Maria van Kerkhove is “this complacency,” reinforced by the feeling of endless “shouting to the wind.” “This is the idea that for some it’s over, and for others, it’s not — that the ‘haves’ can just go back to their lives and forget about the ‘have-nots, ‘” she said. – I feel incredibly disappointed right now because we are in a situation in which we have been living for 19 months; when we know what to do and when we know how to do it – we do not have the collective will. On the other hand, I am full of hope because I know that we can do this; I know that the world community could really unite and come to a point where we will eliminate a serious illness, death. I feel very bipolar in this situation-only with extreme hope and, you know, deep despair. I would like to know when the pandemic will end.”