From now on, the WHO will refer to the UK, South African and Indian coronavirus variants will be referred to as the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants, respectively, as part of new efforts to simplify discussions and remove the stigma from COVID variant names.
Countries stigmatised by classic variant naming tendencies
Earlier this month, the Indian government criticised the WHO for naming the B.1.617.2 variant - which was identified in India last October - as the Indian variant, despite the WHO making no official moves to do so.
Now, the WHO has come up with a simplified naming structure for the variants of concern to avoid stigmatisation of any countries and reduce misrepresentation. A WHO spokesperson announced in a statement:
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
The WHO’s technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove told STAT in an interview that creating a new naming system for variants could further urge countries to come forward and report new variants when detected.
The four coronavirus strains considered to bevariants of concern (VOC) by the United Nations have all been assigned a Greek symbol. According to their order of discovery, variants known to the public as the UK, South African, Brazillian and Indian strains have now been given the characters Alpha Beta, Gamma and Delta.
Other variants of interest (VOI) continue down the alphabet, with the WHO providing a complete list of the renamed COVID variants.
When the 24 character Greek alphabet is exhausted, The WHO will once again source a new naming system.
COVID variant renaming choices came after months of deliberations
Ideas to rename the coronavirus variants with the Greek alphabet came after months of deliberations. But, identifying a compatible system proved to be a struggle.
The WHO’s Frank Konings revealed that the initial plan was to use two-syllable names that weren’t words or even the names of Greek gods. However, many of these names were already in use by other companies, locations and even as family names. Three or four-syllable titles also proved to be too complicated for practical use in conversation.
For a time, the group also considered naming the variants after numbers such as One, Two, and Three. However, this idea was also nixed as it would cause confusion with the numbering used for the genome sequencing equipment, which will continue to stay in use.
Van Kerkhove tweeted that ‘the labels don’t replace existing scientific names, which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research.’
These labels will help with public discussion about VOC/VOI as the numbering system can be difficult to follow.