These letters, periods and numbers strung together sound like droid names from a “Star Wars” movie. Instead, are the names of variants of the coronavirus.

More than a year into the pandemic, World Health Organization officials decided to make the variant names easier to follow and are borrowing from the backup naming system for hurricanes by using the Greek alphabet.

For our FAQ Friday, we delve into the new nomenclature for variants and answer questions about variants in Washington.

What is a variant?

A virus variant happens when a number of mutations occur. The accumulation of mutations doesn’t always make the virus more dangerous, but it can make it more transmissible and more lethal.

The WHO and people working in public health consider variants that have the potential to cause problems as either a Variant of Concern (VoC) or Variant of Interest (VoI).

The WHO defines a VoC as being more transmissible, increases virulence and has demonstrated a decrease in the effectiveness of public-health measures or vaccines. A VoI is a variant causing community transmission or has shown up in multiple countries.


What changes has WHO made to how it names variants?

On Monday, the WHO revealed its new system for the naming of variants cropping up across the world that are considered VoCs or VoIs.

Existing and any new variants will now be named after letters in the Greek alphabet.

Even though the WHO had been giving variants wonky names with letters and numbers many have been referring to the emerging variants by the name of the country where it was found. Instead of people calling a variant first found in the United Kingdom B.1.1.7, it became widely known as the U.K. variant. It is now called Alpha and B.1.351, first found in South Africa, is Beta, and so on.

If the 24 letters in the Greek alphabet are all used the WHO will find another naming system for new variants.

Why is the change being made?

These variants that are identified by the WHO now will be named for letters in the Greek alphabet in an effort to not stigmatize countries where the variants first emerged and to make it easier for the public to understand and remember.

This connection between variant and place can have a chilling effect because it could make countries less willing to report new variants because it doesn’t want its name affiliated with it, Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s coronavirus lead, told STAT in an interview.


Are variants circulating in Washington?

Most of the variants identified as being of interest or concern by the WHO are present in King County and Washington and have been since at least January.

The state Department of Health’s most recent variants report shows that of the 21,104 COVID-19 positive specimens sequenced since January the most prevalent has been the Alpha (B.1.1.7) variant with 4,603 cases. The second most detected variant is Epsilon (B.1.429), with 2,571 cases.

In King County, Alpha is the predominant variant, followed by Epsilon and Gamma (P.1), according to Public Health – Seattle & King County.

The variants are a concern because many are more transmissible, and there is a worry that one of them might be able to evade antibodies created by COVID-19 vaccines, which is called a breakthrough. So far that isn’t the case, according to Dr. Scott Lindquist, the state’s epidemiologist.

He said during DOH’s weekly COVID-19 news briefing that Washington is one of three states doing the most genotyping of the new coronavirus and that work has shown that no particular variant is causing widespread breakthroughs.

“We’re not seeing the predominance of one variant breaking through the vaccines,” he said.


The best defense against emerging variants are vaccinations. The more people who are vaccinated the less chance the virus has to create mutations that lead to variations giving it a better chance of survival.

“The VOCs must be taken seriously. Many of them spread more easily, and in some cases cause worse illness, than the earlier strains of the coronavirus,” Gabriel Spitzer, a spokesperson with Public Health, wrote in an email. “Without vaccines and prevention measures, the VOCs will lead to greater numbers of illnesses, hospitalizations and death.”

Do you have questions about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19?

Ask in the form below and we’ll dig for answers. If you’re using a mobile device and can’t see the form on this page, ask your question here. If you have specific medical questions, please contact your doctor.