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In January 2022, a video suggesting that “COVID” was an acronym for known and unknown variants of COVID-19 went viral on TikTok:
“COVID” is not an acronym for known and unknown variants of COVID-19.
This video plays on the conspiratorial idea that the pandemic was planned (it wasn’t) and illustrates a common misconception about COVID-19 variants. While the omicron and delta variants have made headlines, there have actually been several additional variants.
How Many COVID-19 Variants Are There?
The above-displayed video lists four supposed variants (“C” for corona, “O” for omicron, “I” for IHU, and “D” for delta), but there have actually been several additional variants of COVID-19. Furthermore, “corona” isn’t really a variant. Rather, it’s shorthand for “coronavirus,” the family of viruses to which SARS-CoV-2, the specific virus that causes COVID-19, belongs. We’ll discuss “IHU” in more detail in the next section.
Omicron and delta are the most well known because they have had the most impact on the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists both of these strains as “variants of concern,” or a “variant for which there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (for example, increased hospitalizations or deaths), significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.”
The CDC has also discovered and is monitoring several other variants that are classified as “variants being monitored.” These variants, which include alpha, beta, gamma, epsilon, eta, iota, kappa, zeta, and mu, are variants that “do not pose a significant and imminent risk to public health in the United States.”
In an article from John Hopkins Medicine, Stuart Ray, M.D., vice chair of medicine for data integrity and analytics, and Robert Bollinger, M.D., M.P.H., and Raj and Kamla Gupta professor of infectious diseases, talked more about why COVID-19 has mutated into new variants:
Variants of viruses occur when there is a change — or mutation — to the virus’s genes. Ray says it is the nature of RNA viruses such as the coronavirus to evolve and change gradually. “Geographic separation tends to result in genetically distinct variants,” he says.
Mutations in viruses — including the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic — are neither new nor unexpected. Bollinger explains: “All RNA viruses mutate over time, some more than others. For example, flu viruses change often, which is why doctors recommend that you get a new flu vaccine every year.”
“We are seeing multiple variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that are different from the version first detected in China,” Ray says.
“Different variants have emerged in England, Brazil, California and other areas. More infectious variants such as beta, which first appeared in South Africa, may have increased ability to re-infect people who have recovered from earlier versions of the coronavirus, and also be somewhat resistant to some of the coronavirus vaccines in development. Still, vaccines currently used appear to offer significant protection from severe disease caused by coronavirus variants.”
What is IHU?
The CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been using the Greek alphabet to name new COVID-19 variants. The viral TikTok video, however, mentions a COVID-19 variant named “IHU,” which is not a letter in the Greek alphabet.
“IHU” refers to a variant that was recently discovered by doctors in France. This variant has not (as of this writing) received an official designation from WHO and is currently informally recognized as IHU after the HU Mediterranee Infection, a hospital in France where the variant was first discovered.
WHO said that it was monitoring the variant but that, at the moment, there was little reason for concern. The New York Times reported:
The World Health Organization says that it is monitoring a coronavirus variant detected in a small number of patients in France, but that, for now, there is little reason to worry about its spread.
The B.1.640.2 variant was first identified in October and uploaded to Gisaid, a database for disease variants, on Nov. 4. Only about 20 samples have been sequenced so far, experts said this week, and only one since early December.
Abdi Mahmud, a Covid incident manager with the W.H.O., told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that the variant had been on the agency’s radar since November, but added that it did not appear to have spread widely over the past two months.
“That virus has had a lot of chances to pick up,” he said.
What is the ‘V’ COVID-19 Variant?
The viral TikTok video suggests that COVID is an acronym for both discovered and undiscovered variants. While the “O,” “I,” and “D” variants have all been identified, the “V” version of the coronavirus has yet to arrive, according to this TikTok.
However, there likely will not be a “V” variant of COVID. As mentioned above, health officials have been naming new variants after letters in the Greek alphabet, but there is no “V” in the Greek alphabet. The next major variant will likely be named “pi,” followed by “rho,” “sigma,” and “tau.”
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Bengali, Shashank. “A Variant Found in France Is Not a Concern, the W.H.O. Says.” The New York Times, 5 Jan. 2022. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/05/world/covid-variant-france.html.
CDC. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 Feb. 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/variant-classifications.html.
COVID Variants: What You Should Know. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/a-new-strain-of-coronavirus-what-you-should-know. Accessed 5 Jan. 2022.
WHO Announces Simple, Easy-to-Say Labels for SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Interest and Concern. https://www.who.int/news/item/31-05-2021-who-announces-simple-easy-to-say-labels-for-sars-cov-2-variants-of-interest-and-concern. Accessed 5 Jan. 2022.
“WHO Official Downplays Threat of New COVID IHU Variant.” Time, https://time.com/6133106/ihu-new-covid-variant/. Accessed 5 Jan. 2022.