What Is the 'COVID-22 Variant' and Should Americans Be Worried?

Twitter users have been expressing concern after the term "COVID-22" started to trend on the social media site Tuesday, and the professor who used it has clarified his comments to Newsweek.

On seeing the trending term, users responded with tweets and memes about what some perceived to be a whole new type of coronavirus.

Why is #COVID22 trending?😭😭 pic.twitter.com/efgb4xxgy8

— ડheena🥑 (@Srivenaa) August 24, 2021

i woke up to covid-22 trending. pic.twitter.com/Wu0JATVGXL

— apple (@agueroapple) August 25, 2021

Thank you #covid19 for your service. #Covid22 will replace you

— Qif19 (@abdmuaz15) August 25, 2021

Experts told Newsweek that the term is inaccurate and that "COVID-22" does not exist.

The term appears to have been coined by Sai Reddy, a professor of synthetic immunology at ETH Zurich, a public research university in Switzerland.

In an interview with German-language newspaper Blick on August 22, Reddy discussed the potential for future COVID variants to arise that could potentially be worse than others the world has experienced so far—a reasonable concern echoed by others as well.

Reddy went on to describe the delta variant as "no longer COVID-19" and instead referred to it as "COVID-21."

He added, translated from German: "It is the next phase of the pandemic when Beta or Gamma become more infectious or Delta develops escape mutations. That will be the big problem for the coming year. Covid-22 could get worse than what we are witnessing now."

The quote has since been picked up by other news outlets with headlines warning of a new variant called "COVID-22" that could be even worse than delta.

But professor Jeremy Rossman, an honorary senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent, said it is incorrect to label COVID variants in this way and said there is no such thing as COVID-22.

He told Newsweek: "The criteria for a new variant being called COVID-22 is not defined at present; however, this would likely need to be a new species of the virus and not just a new variant. For reference, we only have the one species of COVID-19 at present."

Even with the current variants of COVID, scientists have not identified a genetic mutation that has caused the virus to become an entirely new species such that the terms COVID-22 or COVID-21 are necessary. Rossman added that it's possible we will never end up using terms such as these.

Mark Harris, a professor at the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Leeds, echoed the point, calling the term COVID-22 "unhelpful and inaccurate."

He told Newsweek: "COVID is an abbreviation for Coronavirus Disease. The virus that causes this is SARS-CoV-2.

"Delta is not COVID-21 or a variant of COVID-19—it is a variant of SARS-CoV-2. Any future variants will also be SARS-CoV-2."

On Wednesday, Professor Reddy clarified his comments in a statement to Newsweek, noting that he did not expect such a reaction on social media.

He said: "I of course agree that the proper and correct usage of the term for the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 is COVID-19. I unfortunately did not realise that my use of the term 'COVID-21' or 'COVID-22' would lead to such a reaction.

"What I meant to convey was that as SARS-CoV-2 evolves literally, our thinking about how to respond and deal with the pandemic should also evolve."

Reddy said that countries around the world have moved between strict lockdowns to relaxed measures and, in some cases, back to strict lockdowns again.

He added: "Now as we start to think about 2022, we again need to consider how to respond to COVID-19. My thoughts mentioned above make it clear that increasing vaccination and access to vaccination is the most important priority."

Terminology aside, concerns about future variants arising are very real, said Rossman.

"Regardless of the naming, there is a real risk of future variants. Each time the virus infects someone it changes a little," he told Newsweek.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic we have seen the virus change, becoming more and more transmissible. More recently we have seen variants that have begun to somewhat evade the protection provided by the vaccines.

"It is likely that these trends will continue into the future with variants possibly continuing to become more transmissible and more immune evading."

Harris also said people should be concerned about future variants and that ensuring equal access to vaccines around the world would "reduce virus prevalence and thereby reduce the chances of new variants arising."

COVID test
A medical worker holds COVID testing equipment at a hospital in Lombardy in March 2020. Concern about future variants is warranted, scientists have said. Miguel Medina/AFP / Getty