For SARS-CoV-2 variants, WHO has updated its operational definitions and tracking mechanism.

The WHO has modified its operational definitions and tracking system for SARS-CoV-2 variations to better reflect the current global variant landscape, independently assess circulating Omicron sublineages, and categorize new variants more precisely as necessary.
SARS-CoV-2 is still changing. Numerous variants of concern (VOCs) and variants of interest (VOIs) have been identified since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) based on their assessed potential for expansion and replacement of prior variants, for causing new waves with increased circulation, and for the need to adapt public health measures.

The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) of the World Health Organization (WHO) has reached the conclusion that Omicron is the most divergent VOC observed to date when compared to earlier variants. This conclusion is based on comparisons of antigenic cross reactivity using animal sera, replication studies in experimental models of the human respiratory tract, and evidence from clinical and epidemiological studies in humans. In comparison to pre-Omicron VOCs, Omicron viruses show a preference for infecting the upper respiratory tract rather than the lower respiratory tract. Since their debut, Omicron viruses have also continued to change genetically and antigenically with an expanding range of subline ages.

The genetic background from which new SARS-CoV-2 variants will most likely emerge comes from the Omicron viruses, which make up over 98% of the publicly available sequences since February 2022. However, the emergence of variants derived from previously circulating VOCs or of completely new variants is still possible. The old method did not have the granularity required to compare new descendent lineages with different phenotypes to the Omicron parent lineages (BA.1, BA.2, BA.4/BA.5) since it classed all Omicron subline ages as belonging to the Omicron VOC. As a result, starting on March 15, 2023, the WHO variation tracking system will treat the classification of Omicron sublineages as separate VUMs, VOIs, or VOCs.

The working definitions for VOCs and VOIs are also being updated by WHO. The primary change is a more precise definition of a VOC that includes significant SARS-CoV-2 evolutionary phases that necessitate significant public health actions. Visit the WHO variation monitoring website for the most recent definitions.
Also, going forward, WHO will only assign Greek labels for VOCs rather than VOIs.
When these modifications are taken into account, the Omicron parent lineage (B.1.1.529), Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta are regarded as previously circulating VOCs. XBB.1.5 has now been designated a VOI by WHO.
Also, WHO will continue to publish regular risk evaluations for both VOIs and VOCs (see latest risk assessment for XBB.1.5).

WHO stresses that these modifications do not signify that the public health is no longer at risk from the spread of Omicron viruses. Instead, the modifications were developed to better recognize any extra or brand-new dangers that might exist in addition to the ones that the Omicron viruses already in use pose.

More about SARS-CoV-2

SARS-CoV-2 is a novel coronavirus that was first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. It is the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a significant impact on global health and the economy. SARS-CoV-2 is a positive-sense, single-stranded RNA virus that is part of the family of viruses known as Coronaviridae. It is closely related to other coronaviruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

The virus is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes. It can also be transmitted through contact with surfaces contaminated with the virus. Symptoms of COVID-19 can range from mild to severe and may include fever, cough, fatigue, loss of smell or taste, and difficulty breathing. Some people may be asymptomatic, meaning they have the virus but do not show any symptoms.

Preventive measures such as wearing masks, practicing good hand hygiene, and social distancing can help reduce the spread of the virus. Vaccines have also been developed and are being distributed globally to help prevent infection and reduce the severity of the disease. As of March 2023, SARS-CoV-2 has caused over 560 million confirmed cases and over 8 million deaths worldwide. Efforts continue to control the spread of the virus and develop effective treatments and vaccines.

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