The World Health Organization said on Monday that it has assigned new “labels” to key coronavirus variants so the public can refer to them by letters of the Greek alphabet instead of where the variant was first detected.
For instance, WHO calls the “UK variant” (B.1.1.7) “Alpha,” and the “South African variant” (B.1.351) is “Beta.”
“No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19 response, wrote in a Twitter post Monday.
Rather, a WHO expert panel recommends using Greek alphabet letters to refer to variants, “which will be easier and more practical to discussed by non-scientific audiences,” WHO says on a new webpage on its website.
The P.1 variant, first detected in Brazil and designated a variant of concern in January, has been labeled “Gamma.” The B.1.617.2 variant, first found in India and recently reclassified from a variant of interest to variant of concern, is “Delta.” Variants of interest have been given labels from “Epsilon” to “Kappa.”
All viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, can mutate or change over time. This is what leads to variants.
WHO noted in Monday’s announcement that the new labels do not replace existing scientific names for coronavirus variants. Scientific names will “continue to be used in research,” Van Kerkhove tweeted.
“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,” according to WHO’s announcement.
It may also be incorrect, as there’s evidence the mutations that mark at least some of the variants have arisen independently in several different places.
“To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels,” WHO said.
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There are some concerns that WHO’s new Greek alphabet naming system has come a little too late – and now the system might make describing the variants even more complicated as there will be three potential names: their scientific name, references based on where a variant was first identified and now, WHO’s Greek alphabet labeling.
“It would have been good to have thought about this nomenclature early,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told CNN on Monday. He added that he thinks it will be difficult to now persuade people to start using the Greek alphabet labels.
“There’s definitely issues with stigmatization where the variants are being described and then labeling them based on that country. We know that there’s already backlash in India, regarding the Indian variant and people mentioning it that way,” Adalja said. “So, I understand why it’s happening. I think it’s just a lot for people to think about this far down the line.”