On Monday, the World Health Organization introduced a new way to name variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
The new naming system labels viral variants with Greek letters, replacing the convention of referring to variants based on where scientists first identified them. So far, four have been named as “variants of concern,” and six others have been named “variants of interest.” The WHO tracks variants because some are more transmissible, cause more dangerous sickness, or both, when compared to the original version of SARS-CoV-2 that spread around the world.
The new naming system is the result of months of discussion, Helen Branswell reports for STAT News. While scientists will continue using the letter-number names for variants, the WHO’s Virus Evolution Working Group, which led the discussions, hopes that the Greek letter names will simplify discussion of variants with wider audiences.
For instance, variant B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the U.K. in December, is named Alpha under the new naming system.
“We’re not saying replace B.1.1.7, but really just to try to help some of the dialogue with the average person,” says epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, the Covid-19 Technical Lead at the WHO, to STAT News. “So that in public discourse, we could discuss some of these variants in more easy-to-use language.”
If it catches on, the new naming system will also replace locations as variant names, which the WHO notes are “stigmatizing and discriminatory.” Historically viruses have been named after the locations where they are thought to have emerged, even if their actual origin is unknown, as with the “Spanish flu” of 1918, Edna Mohamed reports for the Guardian.
References to China and Wuhan when discussing the pandemic coronavirus have been associated with rises in anti-Asian hate crimes. And the Indian government recently asked social media companies to remove posts that mention the “Indian variant” of the coronavirus because of the stigma the name carries. The variant that first became dominant in India and is now present in about 60 countries is called B.1.617.2 or Delta, per Chas Danner at New York Magazine's Intelligencer.
In addition to Alpha and Delta, the WHO’s other variants of concern are B.1.351, which was first identified in South Africa and is now called Beta, and P.1, which was first identified in Brazil and is now called Gamma.
Frank Konings, who leads the WHO Virus Evolution Working Group, tells STAT News that the group initially wanted to create two-syllable names, not based on real words, for the variants, but most two-syllable—and even three-syllable—constructions were already claimed. Other ideas like Greek gods and plain numbers were also nixed.
The WHO hopes that the new naming system will simplify public discussion of variants and will maintain a list of variants on its website. But after more than a year since the emergence of the first variants, some are skeptical that people will be able to pick up the new naming conventions.
"It would have been good to have thought about this nomenclature early," says Johns Hopkins infectious disease and biosecurity expert Amesh Adalja to CNN’s Jacqueline Howard. "There's definitely issues with stigmatization where the variants are being described and then labeling them based on that country... I think it's just a lot for people to think about this far down the line."