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Business News/ Special Report / Meet the Man Who Named Covid’s New Variants

Meet the Man Who Named Covid’s New Variants


Pirola, Eris, Kraken: T. Ryan Gregory finds inspiration in mythology and the stars.

T. Ryan Gregory works with a band of unofficial Covid-19 trackers on social media to follow subvariants of note.Premium
T. Ryan Gregory works with a band of unofficial Covid-19 trackers on social media to follow subvariants of note.

Pirola. Eris. Kraken. Covid-19 subvariants’ viral nicknames lead back to one man: evolutionary biologist T. Ryan Gregory.

Gregory, 48 years old, a professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, works with a band of unofficial Covid-19 trackers on social media to follow subvariants of note and give them monikers when they seem to be standing out from the pack.

They are working outside the World Health Organization’s system for assigning Greek letters to so-called variants of concern or interest. But their nicknames have caught on among news outlets, doctors and vaccine makers.

Some virologists and public-health experts said the nicknames create confusion and exaggerate risks. Gregory said he and his comrades are trying to help people make sense of the Omicron subvariant soup.

“I think it creates some clarity," Gregory said.

The WHO started naming notable Covid-19 variants after Greek letters in the spring of 2021. The organization said the letters and numbers researchers use could be difficult for others to follow, and it didn’t want to stigmatize places by naming variants for where they were identified. The variant of concern B.1.1.7, also called the U.K. variant, became Alpha.

Other Greek letters followed, including Delta, which drove a summer wave of cases and deaths in 2021. Since Omicron emerged later that year, the landscape has become littered with Omicron descendants, competing and evolving to chip away at our immune defenses. None have stood out enough for the WHO to name.

Someone on X, formerly Twitter, declared they would call one of the subvariants Centaurus. Gregory saw an opportunity to help people differentiate the latest threats.

“If the WHO isn’t going to use Greek letters anymore, what if we just used Greek mythological creatures for the ones we need to talk about?" Gregory recalls thinking in 2022. He posted something similar on X and a link to a Wikipedia list of potential names.

Gregory, whose main research area is genome evolution in animals, said he doesn’t know much about Greek mythology. But he suggested it to go along with the Greek letter system and because there were a lot of names to choose from.

He and a few other Covid-19 trackers on X named one Omicron subvariant Cerberus and one Minotaur. Sometimes they bestowed a nickname before the WHO had placed a subvariant on its watch list.

Then the Kraken broke loose.

A Kraken is a creature of Scandinavian mythology, not Greek. Gregory said he picked it for the variant XBB.1.5 because he thought it was more familiar than some lesser Greek ones. The Omicron subvariant became dominant in the U.S. earlier this year and is the target for this year’s Covid-19 vaccines. But it didn’t overrun hospitals. The WHO classified it as a variant of interest, a step below a variant of concern.

Some journalists and hospitals embraced the Kraken name.

Some virologists and public health experts said portraying Omicron subvariants as monsters risked fearmongering.

“What do you tell a patient if they have a mild Medusa infection?" said Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Shreveport. “They’re just crying wolf."

Gregory said he thought the name was cheesy, not scary. He associates it with the 1981 fantasy film “Clash of the Titans," which includes the line “Release the Kraken!"

Still, Gregory and his collaborators turned from mythology to astronomy for further inspiration.

The WHO said in March that it would only name variants of concern that change the disease’s severity or require significant public-health intervention. Variants of interest wouldn’t get a name anymore beyond their scientific letters and numbers.

“We are not using nicknames for these subvariants, and I would kindly encourage you not to. Please," the WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, wrote in April on what is now X.

All of the circulating variants can cause the full range of Covid-19 disease, she said.

In August Gregory and his collaborators anointed the Omicron subvariant EG.5 Eris, after a dwarf planet. They named another subvariant, BA.2.86, after an asteroid called Pirola. The names appeared in the past month in news reports, the American Medical Association’s website and news releases from Moderna and Pfizer.

“It feels more easily accessible," said Stuart Turville, a virologist at the University of New South Wales, Sydney in Australia. Turville has run lab experiments on Covid-19 subvariants that Gregory’s group discussed online.

Covid-19 hospitalizations have been increasing from low levels since July, heading into the fall months when respiratory viruses often spread. EG.5 or Eris is driving about a quarter of recent U.S. cases, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

BA.2.86 or Pirola startled virologists with its many mutations, but laboratory tests suggest it might not outcompete other subvariants. It isn’t causing enough U.S. cases to appear in the CDC’s latest estimate.

The WHO classified EG.5 as a variant of interest and BA.2.86 as a variant under monitoring, a tier lower on its watch system.

Naming Omicron subvariants after creatures or asteroids can make them sound more unique or threatening than they are, said Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University’s School of Public Health.

“People think this variant is something we’ve never seen before that we’re not going to have immunity against," she said. “And that’s not at all true."

Most people have some immune protection from Covid-19 vaccination and infection, even as the virus continues to change. Gregory said that if the Omicron subvariants are different enough to merit updating vaccines to fight them, it seems valid to give them separate nicknames, too.

He invited public-health authorities to start naming more variants again.

“If they started using an official nickname, I’d use that and I’d be happy to do it," he said.

Write to Brianna Abbott at

Meet the Man Who Named Covid’s New Variants
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Meet the Man Who Named Covid’s New Variants
Meet the Man Who Named Covid’s New Variants
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Meet the Man Who Named Covid’s New Variants

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