COVID-19 variants will now be named after the Greek alphabet to reduce confusion among the general population and to avoid potentially stigmatizing regions of the world from which they emerge, the World Health Organization announced Monday.
The new system will cover the several variants of concern as well as any variants of interest. The variant of concern from Britain, also called B.1.1.7 by scientists, will now receive the WHO designation of “alpha.” The variant from South Africa, B.1.351., has been designated “beta,” the variant from Brazil, also called P.1 by scientists, has been designated “gamma,” and the variant from India, B.1.617.2, has been designated “delta.”
“No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” said Maria Van Kerkhov, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19 said Monday, reports Axios.
The World Health Organization website, similarly, says scientists settled on the naming system in a search for “easy-to-pronounce and non-stigmatising labels” for 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,” reads the SARS-CoV-2 variant website at the WHO. “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 using letters of the Greek Alphabet, i.e., Alpha, Beta, Gamma, which will be easier and more practical to discussed by non-scientific audiences.”
The World Health Organization has also listed six COVID-19 variants of interest, stemming from multiple countries, with the letters epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, and kappa.
According to Stat News, a health and medicine news website, scientists debated several different options for the new naming system, including mashing together two-syllable names or three-syllable names, but those didn’t work because they kept accidentally creating words that already exist. They also ruled out using names of Greek gods and goddesses and ruled out using numbers because it would be just as confusing.
Greek alphabet letters are used commonly in sciences, but they also found themselves in the news often with the most recent hurricane season, which relied on Greek letters after the pre-selected hurricane names were exhausted before the 2020 season was over.
But the World Meteorological Association has since retired the Greek Alphabet system.
Meteorologists pointed to several problems with continuing to use the Greek alphabet for naming storms. These included “confusion with some Greek alphabet names when they are translated into other languages used within the Region,” and the similar-sounding nature of some of the letters, which can hamper crisis communication. Perhaps above all, however, was that WMO was forced to retire the names of two Greek alphabet named hurricanes — Eta and Iota — leaving the Greek alphabet two letters short.
The World Health Organization, on the other hand, plans to simply use another naming series for COVID-19 variants once they use up the 24 letters in the Greek alphabet.