The World Health Organization announced Monday it will change how it refers to new variants of the coronavirus, simplifying its naming conventions for the general public in an effort to prevent geographical names from being attached to new strands of the disease. The new naming process will use the Greek alphabet, such as Alpha, Beta, or Delta, in order to differentiate variants. Since the pandemic began, new variations of the virus have popped up around the world—from Brazil to the U.K., South Africa, and India—and each is given a technical naming device such as B.1.617.2 (the Indian variant) or B.1.1.7 (the U.K. variant). The technical names are obviously indecipherable for the general public, such that the general convention has been to substitute the location of the new strand’s origin to differentiate the variants.
“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 stigmatizing and discriminatory,” the WHO said in a statement. “To avoid this and to simplify public communications, [the] WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels.”
The move to come up with an easier nomenclature to describe variants has been in the works for months, but comes shortly after the Indian government, sensitive to criticism of its handling of the virus, asked social media platforms to remove content that referred to the “Indian variant” because the association was damaging to the country. The new WHO naming scheme will not replace the scientific names, which will still be used by technical experts, but is aimed at filling the naming void that accompanies the technical descriptors, as well as at removing the stigma and implication of responsibility that comes with geographical naming. Having a country linked with a variant or a virus can have a far-reaching impact on the nation and nationality, including economic losses from travel bans, loss of tourism and trade, and, as we’ve seen with the treatment of Asian-Americans over the last 18 months, harassment and abuse.
“Under the new scheme, B.1.1.7, the variant first identified in Britain, will be known as Alpha and B.1.351, the variant first spotted in South Africa, will be Beta. P.1, the variant first detected in Brazil, will be Gamma and B.1.671.2, the so-called Indian variant, is Delta,” according to Stat News. “When the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet have been exhausted, another series like it will be announced.” The hope is that by removing the stigma of a nationality being attached to a variant, national governments will also be more willing to be transparent if a variant of concern crops up in their country.