Kraken, for me, evokes memories of the very first video game of the Final Fantasy franchise, which I played prolifically on my eight-bit Nintendo through the 1990s. It was one of the hardier, most difficult bosses, hidden in a dark dungeon called the Sunken Shrine, where I spent many frustrating hours trying to emerge victorious and continue my quest.
I don’t begrudge that some people have decided to use, in informal circles, the nickname “Kraken” to refer to the XBB.1.5 variant of COVID-19 that has driven new surges in other countries and has now been detected in Canada. I also hold no issue, personally, with the progenitors of the nickname or their specific views; I will not speculate as to their agenda or their purpose in putting “Kraken” out there.
My discomfiture lies solely in how and why the media adopted this nickname for the public.
News stories about the “Kraken” variant began to emerge at the New Year, and between the frustrations of failed role-playing sessions of my youth comingling with the challenges of two years of pandemic public health leadership, I quickly reached out to my former colleagues in public health to determine if I had missed something in my recent career transitions.
Had the World Health Organization (WHO) moved to mythology to facilitate COVID-19 variant nomenclature?
The answer was quick, firm and expected: no, it had not.
Instead, it appeared that mainstream media had latched on to a nickname that had its origins on Twitter, deciding to advance it in lieu of positions taken by official bodies and agencies.
I was immediately reminded of the propagation of the myth that second-hand smoke in vehicles was supposedly 23 times more toxic than in a home. A CMAJ analysis found that this insight did not emerge from any reputable body or source, but in fact, came from an unsupported quote by a Colorado politician. Yet this pseudo-factoid subsequently became embedded in both published and grey literature, forming one part of the evidence-base for the decision to ban smoking to protect children.
To be clear, there is an undeniable benefit to protecting children from second-hand smoke in all enclosed spaces, including cars. But the use of a non-credible source in supporting this policy direction left it vulnerable to challenge and weakened the basis for proposed actions.
The WHO thus far has not named any variant of concern post-Omicron.
Deciding to amplify a social-media nickname for a subvariant of COVID-19 arguably has a similar effect. The WHO thus far has not named any variant of concern post-Omicron. This is based on its guidance, issued the better part of a decade before Kraken came to light, that proposes best practices for naming human infectious diseases. These guidelines highlight the importance of using an “appropriate name that is scientifically sound and socially acceptable” for novel infectious diseases – that is, diseases that do not already have an established name. They provide various specific guidance for scientists to avoid geographic or personal references, names that include food or animal species (which manifested recently in the remaining of mpox), names with cultural, population, industry or occupational references and, finally (and perhaps most saliently), terms that incite undue fear.
Part of the impetus for the Twitter conversation to give rise to the nickname Kraken appears to have been a conflict between the realm of evolutionary biology, which has a necessary focus on tracking the constitution of organisms, and the role of the WHO and public health agencies in noting variants of concern as they pertain to the need for public health action.
In essence, both actors are tracking these data – but are reaching different conclusions as a result of their differing perspectives.
As a physician and public health specialist, I understand that the WHO has reasons for continuing to track subvariants of Omicron while continuing to refer to this particular mutation of the virus overall as Omicron. The official decision not to christen a new variant of concern likely lies in its estimation that these sub-lineages do not represent the need for a major shift at the level of societal action, as opposed to taxonomy alone, while accounting for current context of therapeutics and prophylactics, population susceptibility and the state of the pandemic.
To that end, I wonder if the media eschewed their own guidelines on determining what is credible, authoritative and newsworthy:
- Who is the author? (Authority)
- What is the purpose of the content? (Accuracy)
- Where is the content from? (Publisher)
- Why does the source exist? (Purpose and Objectivity)
- How does this source compare to others? (Determining What’s What – also known as the “two-source test.”)
Looking at these questions objectively, it’s clear that the nickname “Kraken” for the XBB.1.5. subvariant of COVID-19 Omicron does not arise from any mandated agency or authority; does not comply with accepted guidelines on nomenclature; and is at odds with official sources and media positions on the “two-source test.”
Yet, some members of the media have again jettisoned their own guidelines on credible sources and newsworthiness, amplifying a casual nickname that originated on Twitter in place of the evidence-based positions and deliberation of official organizations. The use of dubious sources in rapid-fire efforts to inform the public throughout the pandemic has occurred frequently, the consequences captured perhaps most significantly in this mea culpa from the Toronto Star.
When the tentacle wags the giant squid, the media undermine their own credibility as honest arbiters of facts. This, regrettably, makes them contributors to the mixed messaging and misinformation that has plagued this plague, leaving themselves also open to criticism from fringe elements that seek to discredit official sources and traditional channels.