‘COVID-22’ isn’t a real illness, and experts say it’s unlikely it ever will be. Here’s why people are confused.
When COVID-19 burst onto the world, there were plenty of questions about what happened to COVIDs one through 18. But most people understood that COVID-19 got its name due to the year it first appeared, aka 2019.
Now, there’s a term making the rounds on Twitter that has people asking all kinds of questions again—and even low-level freaking out. It’s “COVID-22,” and there’s been so much talk about it that it actually started trending Twitter on Monday.
Before you join social media in panicking, understand this: COVID-22 isn’t really a thing. Here’s what you need to know about where this term came from, and why a disease with that name is unlikely to ever exist.
Where did the Term COVID-22 come from?
It looks like it first cropped up in an article published on August 22 in the German newspaper, Blick. That article interviewed Swiss professor and immunologist Sai Reddy, PhD, who warned that a new variant of COVID-19 could appear in 2022 that would be a “big risk” to everyone. He also referred to the Delta variant as “COVID-21.”
“The Delta variant is much more contagious,” Reddy told the newspaper. “This is no longer COVID-19. I would call it COVID-21.”
Reddy later used the term “COVID-22” to describe the possibility of an “inevitable” future variant. “Is the next phase of the pandemic when Beta or Gamma become more infectious or Delta develops escape mutations?” he said. “That will be the big problem for the coming year. COVID-22 could get worse than what we are witnessing now.”
Just to recap, a professor from Switzerland, who referred to the Delta variant as “COVID-21” said that there might be a more serious strain of the virus next year, which he personally dubbed “COVID-22.”
How did COVID-19 get its name, again?
That leads us to how COVID-19 got its name in the first place. Virus names are based on their genetic structure, and giving them names helps with the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines, and medicines, the World Health Organization (WHO) explains online. The specific virus name comes from the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), while the disease each virus causes is named by the WHO.
ICTV originally dubbed the virus “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)” on February 11, 2020. “This name was chosen because the virus is genetically related to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003,” the WHO explains. “While related, the two viruses are different.”
The WHO later announced that the illness caused by SARS-CoV-2 is called COVID-19, using guidelines that were previously developed with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The actual name “COVID-19” is an acronym, Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Health. “‘CO’ is for coronavirus, ‘VI’ is for virus, and ‘D’ is for disease,” he says. “The ‘-19’ is the year when it was first discovered.”
Will there ever be a COVID-22?
Infectious disease experts are doubtful. “COVID-19 got its name because it showed up in 2019,” William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Health. “But all of the variants—strains that are similar to but still different from the original COVID-19—are given names from the Greek alphabet.”
If there is a new variant that pops up in 2022, “it would likely be called some letter of the Greek alphabet—not ‘COVID-22,'” Dr. Schaffner says.
In order for an actual COVID-22 to emerge, it would need to be significantly different from the original COVID-19 and still be a coronavirus, Martin J. Blaser, MD, professor of medicine, pathology, and laboratory medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Health.
But experts “just can’t predict” what will happen next, says Dr. Blaser. “I don’t think that there’s going to be any cataclysmic new virus coming out next year or 10 years later,” he says. “That’s unknowable. What we can predict is that there will be new variants of COVID-19. Some of these variants may be better or worse. Time will tell.”
Dr. Schaffner agrees. “Saying that we will have an actual COVID-22 is like anticipating at some point that we’re going to have an entirely different flu strain,” he says. “Yes, it could happen, but we have no idea when or how it would actually happen.”