WHO creates new system to name COVID-19 variants using Greek alphabet

WHO creates new system to name COVID-19 variants using Greek alphabet
AP Photo/Matias Delacroix
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The World Health Organization has issued plans to rename COVID-19 variants after the Greek alphabet to reduce confusion caused by the names of the variants, which are typically made up of seemingly random numbers and the names of places, which are often misnomers. 

On Monday, the WHO said that the new system will cover several variants of concern and variants of interest. The so-called British variant, which is referred  to as B.1.1.7 by scientists, will be given the designation of “alpha.” The South African variant, called B.1.351. has been designated “beta.” The Brazilian variant, known as P.1., has been titled “gamma.” The Indian variant, or B.1.617.2, is “delta.” 

“No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” said WHO technical lead for COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhov. 

The WHO website explains that scientists settled upon the Greek alphabet naming system to produce an “easy-to-pronounce and non-stigmatizing labels” for COVID-19 variants. 

“The established nomenclature systems for naming and tracking SARS-CoV-2 genetic lineages by GISAID, Nextstrain and Pango are currently and will remain in use by scientists and in scientific research,” explains the WHO’s SARS-CoV-2 variant website. “To assist with public discussions of variants, WHO convened a group of scientists from the WHO Virus Evolution Working Group, the WHO COVID-19 reference laboratory network, representatives from GISAID, Nextstrain, Pango and additional experts in virological, microbial nomenclature and communication from several countries and agencies to consider easy-to-pronounce and non-stigmatising labels for VOI and VOC. 

“At the present time, this expert group convened by WHO has recommended using labeled [sic] using letters of the Greek Alphabet, i.e., Alpha, Beta, Gamma, which will be easier and more practical to [be] discussed by non-scientific audiences.”

In addition to those already listed, the WHO has listed six variants of interest from different locations, identified with the letters epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, and kappa.

Adoption of the Greek naming system comes after scientists suggested other ways of listing the variants, including mixing together two-syllable names or three-syllable names. The suggestion was abandoned because they kept producing words that already exist. Scientists also ruled out using the names of Greek gods and goddesses and the application of any numbers, as these systems were similarly confusing.

The WHO will switch over to another set of names if and when they run out of the 24 letters in the Greek alphabet.

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  • By David Menzies

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