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An explainer: Making sense of COVID-19 variants

January 20, 2023


With dozens of variants mutating across the globe, it has become ever more confusing to understand what type of variant or even virus we are dealing with. Scientists aren’t helping when a single virus is called by multiple names - like Omicron, BA.1, BF.7 or Kraken. 

Prime minister Anwar Ibrahim recently spoke on new tighter health measures that would be implemented to stop imported COVID-19 variants and to avoid any risk of another wave.

In this two part explainer, we’re setting out to make sense of the confusing dynamics of the COVID-19 naming scheme used in the media. Alongside this, we also want to understand the most effective ways to combat the incoming wave of variants to Malaysian shores. 

To provide greater insight into this discussion, we spoke to the head of infectious disease control at Hospital Canselor Tunku Mukhriz, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Dr Sharifah Azura.

Understanding the variants

In June 2021, the World Health Organisation revealed its new naming system that it would use to define noteworthy variants of COVID-19. The Greek alphabet naming scheme was adopted with the hopes of avoiding stigmatisation and discrimination against countries for reporting variants (

These Greek alphabets would be used to denote “variants of interest” and “variants of concern” in order to make them more publicly friendly. 

Dr Sharifah explained that the “variant of interest” refers to a new mutation of COVID-19 that interests scientists. This could be due to its transmissibility or causes a higher risk for hospitalisation post infection, for example.. 

“[But] if this variant ]of concern] causes more disease and is transmitted very fast, then it will become a variant of concern,” she said, adding that is when the WHO would label the new variant with its own Greek alphabet. 

Even with the widespread implementation of the Greek alphabet system, news reports do not consistently use the naming scheme to communicate the variant. Often what appears to be a cryptic list of letters and numbers seems to be used to discuss variants instead.

This list of letters and numbers is known as the Pango lineage.

Types of COVID-19 variants. Credit to

The Pango nomenclature, according to Dr Sharifah, is a far more accurate way to make sense of COVID-19’s many variants, but is used mostly by researchers among other naming methods. She described the Pango lineage system as the “family tree” of the virus. 

“With the letters and numbers we can know where they come from, and the family tree whether this strain is related to Alpha or this strain is related to Beta,” she said. 

Image credit to Rockerfeller Foundation

There are a few key parts to understanding the Pango lineage system:

  1. Pango lineage names comprise alphabets preceded by numbers separated by dots. For example, B.1.1.7;
  2. Each number following the dot refers to a root in the family tree, connoting its descendent;
  3. Each variant can only have three numbers after its letter;
  4. In order to avoid an endless lineage, once the variant’s roots reach three numbers, a new letter is assigned. For example B.1.1.1 becomes C, which is a new letter referring to B.1.1.1, to allow new roots to form. 

In Malaysia, the most prominent variant is Omicron XBB recombinant variant, Dr Sharifah mentioned. 

A recombinant variant is when two variants merge to create a new mutation. In the case of XBB it is BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75. The designations X, J and I are used to identify these mergings, hence XBB. 

“Mutations are going to happen all the time with viruses, so we are going to  have many, many new variants. The best way to monitor is to see which strain is going to cause more severe disease,” Dr Sharifah advised. 

In part two of our COVID-19 explainer, we’re going to explore the best ways to combat the growing list of variants, and understand whether vaccines are the best way forward. 

Faqcheck Teams:

University of Nottingham Malaysia: Nathaniel Chan Jia Yoong, Nursarah Mohammad Firdaus Aloysius, Dayana Salim & Nur Ain Nabila

Special thanks to:

Dr Sharifah Azura (Google Scholar)

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