LONDON — Britain is in the difficult position of not only facing one of the world's highest per capita coronavirus death tolls but also being implicated — by labeling, at least — as the source of a highly contagious version of the virus now spreading around the world: the feared "U.K. variant."
“WHO calls for more intensified measures to fight UK coronavirus variant,” CNN announced. “Warnings of huge new spike in US covid-19 cases as UK variant spreads,” wrote the New Scientist. “U.K. variant found in Ohio,” reported Cleveland.com.
A year ago, as the novel coronavirus began spreading from Wuhan, China, on its way to becoming a global pandemic, there was pushback against maligning China or its hard-hit city with labels like “China virus” or “Wuhan virus.” President Trump waved away those concerns — and added “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” to his descriptors.
There hasn’t yet been the same pushback for the “U.K. variant.” It’s one of a number of mutations being called after the place where they were detected. The others include the “South African variant” and the “Brazilian variant.” But the variant first detected in Britain is making the most news. On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted it would become the dominant strain in the United States within two months.
Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s top emergencies official, acknowledged that the geographical names can be a problem.
“It’s really important that when people call it the ‘U.K. variant’ or ‘South African variant’ that we aren’t assigning values to these countries, these countries aren’t the cause of this problem,” he said at a recent news conference. Instead, he said, “they should be commended and lauded” for investing in the systems that allow this kind of monitoring.
The WHO told The Washington Post that it is planning a new naming system without reference to country names, to be announced “soon.”
The technical name for the variant first identified in Britain is “B.1.1.7.”
That may be a tough one to use on the nightly news. But Andrew Rambaut, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh and one of the authors of a paper that called for the current lineage naming system, explained that a lot of information is packed in there.
“B” refers to the original variant observed in Wuhan in early 2020. “B.1” is associated with the big outbreak in Italy and central Europe last spring.
“It tells you something about the history,” Rambaut said.
Asked whether, when talking to colleagues, he says “B point one point one point seven,” he laughed. No, he said, just “B one one seven.”
He admitted that, initially, he used a geographic label.
“We called it ‘the Kent one’ because that’s where we first saw it,” he said. “But we tried hard not to because it becomes meaningless very, very quickly. You say ‘U.K. variant,’ when it’s actually now 50 countries in the world.”
Sharon Peacock, chair of the Covid-19 Genomics U.K. Consortium, a world leader in sequencing the changing mutations of the coronavirus, said one problem with naming variants after localities is that where they first emerge and where they are discovered might be very different.
Because Britain is sequencing more virus genomes than anywhere else, many of the variants now and in the future might be “discovered” there, even if they arose somewhere else and arrived via international travelers.
“The more you sequence, the more you find,” Peacock said. “First detected doesn’t mean first emergent.”
She agreed that the terminology can be confusing. Even she and her colleagues sometimes stumble and refer to the “South African” or “Brazilian” variant.
Jeffrey Barrett, lead covid-19 statistical geneticist at the Sanger Institute, which is sequencing about 10,000 genomes of the coronavirus each week, said devising a naming scheme “is not a totally easy problem.”
It makes sense for scientists to use a technical system at first, he said, “because you don’t know how the virus is going to change and grow when you start out,” and naming thousands of mutations distinct, snappy names wouldn’t be helpful. But if a variant of concern does emerge, like B.1.1.7, “you end up getting these kind of mouthful names, and inevitably you slip into trying to say something that is at least recognizable.”
Stephen Mawdsley, a historian at the University of Bristol, said the WHO was “quite right” to come up with a new naming system because names linked with countries are “not helpful.”
“Such terms are problematic and only serve to stigmatize national groups and limit cooperation,” he said. “Indeed, contagious diseases — especially ones that can cause pandemics — are an international problem and need to be framed accordingly.”
The 1918 influenza outbreak was also widely known as the “Spanish flu,” a label loathed by Spain. It didn’t originate there. Mawdsley said some historical sources suggest American soldiers may have brought it to Europe during World War I. But Spain was the first country to report it — and has been trying to distance itself ever since.
Cate Newsom, managing director at Evviva Brands, said “covid” has worked well as a name because it’s “neutral, it’s not pointing a finger at anybody.” Likewise, she said, it would be good to “have some kind of system in place to avoid this kind of scenario where it’s attributed to a place . . . like storms or hurricanes, that’s a much more neutral systemic approach. Nobody blames women named Katrina for a storm.”
She said those devising naming systems should be mindful that if the names are too much of a mouthful, the public will shorten them. “It needs to be something short enough that people can remember, three syllables, preferably two,” she said, noting that already, “corona has become ’rona for many.”
B.1.1.7 was detected in late autumn and began to raise flags in late November and early December, when scientists saw it spreading quickly in the southeast of England. It’s up to 70 percent more transmissible, and it is one of the reasons behind the current lockdown in England.
The naming debate isn’t limited to place of origin. Should these new discoveries be referred to as variants, strains, mutants, shifts, drifts?
“I understand the confusion. Of course, they are viruses, but they are not new viruses,” Massimo Palmarini, director of the MRC Center for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, said in a webinar with science journalists on Friday.
“We were just joking earlier on that if you put 20 virologists in a room, we will all have slightly different terms, our preferred terms that we use. But the consensus term is variants.”