How Do COVID Variants Get Their Names?

SARS-CoV-2 is really unique. We’ve seen it grow and change many, many times throughout the worst of the pandemic, and it’s still taking on new forms to this day.

Few diseases have enjoyed fame on a scale as massive as COVID-19, and even fewer have evolved so dramatically, right before our eyes. As such, we’re lucky enough to watch it be named formally as it changes, as opposed to just hearing about the process in retrospect.

How are COVID-19 variant names even chosen? First things first: who names COVID variants? What’s their game?

How Do COVID Variants Get Their Names, Anyway?

The World Health Organization (WHO) is the governing body with the final say—every SARS-CoV-2 variant that’s been identified is named within these walls.

Behind the scenes, there’s a small committee of virological, microbial nomenclature experts tasked with this responsibility. Their goal is to devise “non-stigmatizing” COVID names that are easy to read and pronounce internationally, through many different languages and dialects.

There is an “established nomenclature system” that the organization adheres to ordinarily, which lays the groundwork for a library of named viruses acceptable on a global, academic scale. This standardized system is able to alchemize old-school Latin conventions with new discoveries, modernizing everything that’s already been named and inviting it into a wider scope that relates it to the present.

The document linked above answers a few questions, but not all of them. We know that new COVID variants used to be updated with simple sigla, which are single-character labels like Greek letters. What’s the difference between COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2, though?


Essentially, SARS-CoV-2 refers to the virus itself as an organism. The condition that it imposes—coughing, shortness of breath, and the rest—is called COVID-19. Simple enough, right?

COVID has been earning itself new monikers since it first became a variant of concern in January 2020. Naming viruses progressively as they evolve is nothing new or exclusive to COVID-19, however.

What Warrants A New Virus Name?

According to the WHO, a new sublineage of a previous virus must vary significantly from its predecessors without breaking the line of development intrinsically. This may include small things like amino acid substitutions, or even more advanced fare like Omicron’s characteristic “spike” appendage.

Mostly, this system is implemented as a means of crisis management on a large scale. When BA.2 hit the stage earlier this year, we were able to track its progress by differentiating it from the main Omicron fork.

While Omicron’s extended spike organelle is definitely an unusually pronounced mutation, it was able to facilitate a much faster rate of transmission between victims, with each progressive strain becoming more and more talented in this area.

Without classifying the difference intellectually and academically, we would be beholden to what, on the surface, appears to be the same virus traveling much more quickly than it was able to before for reasons beyond our understanding.

Now, we’re armed with the knowledge required to reckon meaningfully with a constantly-changing, microscopic adversary. Science is awesome.

COVID-19 Meaning: What’s In A Name?

COVID-19? SARS-CoV-2? No matter what you want to call it, we can get you tested ASAP.

We’ll admit it: we miss the gravitas of the old Greek names for COVID. BA.2 just doesn’t have the same classy sense of flair as a Delta or an Omicron, but we’ll learn to live with it eventually.

We digress. Find a Covid Clinic near you to learn more about testing with us, including group testing and a complete list of our other services.

Still have questions?

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