Coronavirus variants are to be named after letters of the Greek alphabet instead of their place of first discovery, the World Health Organization has announced, in a move to avoid stigma.
The WHO has named four variants of concern, known to the public as the UK/Kent (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351), Brazil (P.1) and India (B.1.617.2) variants. They will now be given the letters Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta respectively, to reflect their order of detection, with any new variants following the pattern down the Greek alphabet.
The decision to go for this naming system came after months of deliberations with experts considering a range of other possibilities such as Greek Gods, according to bacteriologist Mark Pallen who was involved in the talks.
The organisation said the labels do not replace existing scientific names involving numbers, Roman letters and full stops, which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research.
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 stigmatising and discriminatory.
“To avoid this and to simplify public communications, [the] WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels.”
Historically, diseases have frequently been named after the locations they were thought to have developed, such as the Ebola virus, which takes its name from the Congolese river. However, such associations can be damaging for those places and are often inaccurate, as is the case with the “Spanish flu” of 1918, whose origins are unknown.
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 down to 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 to protect those who have suffered a surge in attacks during the pandemic.
With US anti-extremist groups saying that the rise in hate crimes was partly due to former President Donald Trump who referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus”.
The WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said of adopting new variant names: “No country should be stigmatised for detecting and reporting variants.”