WHO to use Greek alphabet to rename COVID-19 variants

WHO to use Greek alphabet to rename COVID-19 variants

To avoid stigma, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has decided new variants of coronavirus will no longer be named according to where they were first detected (i.e. South Africa, India), instead they will be identified using Greek letters. 

WHO to rename COVID-19 variants

Diseases have historically often been named after the place where they are believed to have originated. The Ebola virus, for instance, takes its name from a river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, such associations can be harmful to the places and moreover inaccurate and misleading. 

Therefore, the WHO announced this week that, in the future, new COVID-19 mutations will be referred to using Greek letters, in the order in which they were first discovered. The decision comes after months of deliberations, according to bacteriologist Mark Pallen who was involved in the talks.

The variant that first emerged in Great Britain will now be known as “Alpha," while the variant from South Africa is “Beta." “Gamma” was first discovered in Brazil and “Delta” is the variant first detected in India. Future variants will be named following the pattern down the Greek alphabet. Experts also considered a range of other possibilities, including Greek Gods or pseudo-classical word creations.  

“Alpha” and “Beta” instead of “British” and “South African”

The WHO emphasised that the new labels will not replace the existing scientific names - made up of numbers, Roman letters and full stops - which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research. 

“These scientific names have their advantages, but they can be difficult to say and recall and are prone to misreporting,” the WHO said. “As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatising and discriminatory…To avoid this and to simplify public communications, [the] WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels.” 

“No country should be stigmatised for detecting and reporting variants,” added WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove. 

Victoria Séveno


Victoria Séveno

Victoria grew up in Amsterdam, before moving to the UK to study English and Related Literature at the University of York and completing her NCTJ course at the Press Association...

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