The World Health Organization (WHO), decided on Monday to use letters from the Greek alphabet for Covid variant names in a bid to simplify discussion and pronunciation — while avoiding any possible stigma that can be carried with a name designating the strain’s origin.
There will be no longer “Indian” nor “South African” Covid variant; these will be represented by a letter from the Greek alphabet.
The WHO revealed the new names amid criticism that those given by scientists — such as the so-called South African variant, which goes by multiple names including B.1.351, 501Y.V2 and 20H/501Y.V2 — were too complicated.
As such, the four coronavirus variants considered “of concern” by the UN agency and known generally by the public as the UK, South African, Brazilian and Indian variants have now been given the Greek letters alpha, beta, gamma, and delta according to the order of their detection.
Other variants of interest continue down the alphabet.
Today WHO has announced a new naming system for key #COVID19 variants. The labels are based on the Greek alphabet (i.e. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc), making them simple, easy to say and remember.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) May 31, 2021
“While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting,” said the WHO in explaining the decision.
“Stigmatizing and discriminatory”
The WHO said: “While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall and are prone to misreporting … As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory.
“To avoid this and to simplify public communications, (the) WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels.”
Earlier this month, the Indian government ordered social media platforms to take down content that referred to the “Indian variant.” The government order was cited as an example of its sensitivity to accusations that it had mishandled the latest outbreak.
Anti-Asian hate crime has risen as a result of the pandemic and associations between Covid and the site of its first outbreak in Wuhan, China.
US anti-extremist groups said a rise in attacks on Asian-Americans was partly because of Donald Trump, who referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus.” Trump’s successor as president, Joe Biden, signed a hate crimes law this month aimed at protecting those who have suffered a surge in attacks during the pandemic.
How the Greek alphabet was chosen for Covid variants
The choice of the Greek alphabet came after months of deliberations in which other possibilities such as Greek gods, and invented, pseudo-classical names were considered by experts, Reuters reports.
But many were already brands, companies or alien names.
Another idea to refer to variants of concern as VOC1, VOC2 et cetera was scrapped after it was pointed out they resembled an English swear word.
Historically, viruses have often been associated with the locations from which they are thought to have emerged, such as Ebola, which is named after the Congolese river.
But this can be damaging for the places and often inaccurate such as with the so-called “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918, the origins of which are unknown.
Reuters reports that before the new WHO scheme, some scientists had adopted their own simplified nomenclature for variants such as a February paper using bird names.
However, it was criticized on the grounds that this could imperil birds and people with names such as Robin or Robyn.