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HealthGlobal issues

WHO goes Greek to rename coronavirus variants

June 1, 2021

The World Health Organization has said it will rename COVID-19 variants to avoid stigmatization of countries where new strains of the virus are first reported.

A 3D illustration of a coronavirus mutation
The renaming comes amid concerns that countries where new variants are first discovered could face stigmatizationImage: DesignIt/Zoonar/picture alliance

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday that it would start also using Greek letters to name more noteworthy variants of COVID-19.

Officials at the Geneva-based UN body said this move would help simplify public discussions about variants.

As well as the official scientific names, such as B.1.1.7, where the letters and numbers refer to the genetic roots of the variant and the order in which the mutations were observed, the WHO will now start naming a select group of more serious "variants of concern" using the letters of the Greek alphabet. 

"While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting," said the WHO, explaining the decision.

For example, the variant first discovered in the UK would be known as "Alpha," whilst the variant first identified in India — the fourth variant of concern so far identified — would be branded "Delta."

The decision also comes amid concerns raised by the Indian government that labeling variants according to where they were first detected leads to increased stigmatization, with nicknames like the "British" or "Indian" variants popular as substitutes for the letters and numerals.

How did they pick the new naming system?

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, bacteriologist Mark Pallen, who was involved in the talks, told Reuters news agency.

Maria Van Kerkhove, a senior technical official at the WHO who specializes in the body's response to COVID-19, said the name change should lessen the stigma faced by countries.

"No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting COVID variants," she said. 

When the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet have been exhausted, another series like it will be announced, van Kerkhove said in an interview with STAT News.

"We're not saying replace B.1.1.7, but really just to try to help some of the dialogue with the average person," she told the US-based website, referencing the variant first discovered in the UK.

"So that in public discourse, we could discuss some of these variants in more easy-to-use language."

EU vaccine aid for South Africa

Concerns over variants

On Monday, the BBC quoted a leading government scientific adviser as saying that Britain was on the cusp of a third wave of coronavirus infections owing partly to the spread of the B.1.617 variant (or Delta variant) that was first identified in India.

Experts believe it can spread more quickly than other COVID-19 variants.

French authorities have already closed their borders to arrivals from the UK "without a compelling reason" to travel amid fears it could lead to a surge in cases there.

jf/rs (Reuters, AFP)