• Thursday, October 06, 2022


Greek alphabet for Covid variants will avoid stigma, says WHO

(Photo: iStock)

By: Eastern Eye Staff

LETTERS of the Greek alphabet will be used to identify coronavirus variants in order to sim­plify discussion and pronunciation while avoiding stigma.

The World Health Organization (WHO) re­vealed the new names on Monday (31) amid criticism that those giv­en by scientists to strains such as the South African variant – which goes by multiple names including B.1.351, 501Y.V2 and 20H/501Y.V2 – were too complicated.

Since the pandemic began, the names peo­ple have used to de­scribe the virus have provoked controversy. Former US president Donald Trump called it “the China virus”, rais­ing concern he was us­ing the name as a politi­cal weapon to shift blame to a rival nation.

The WHO, which has urged people not to use language to advance Covid-19 profiling of people or nationalities, also said using country names in association with emerging variants should be avoided.

The four coronavirus variants considered of concern by the UN agency and known gen­erally by the public as the UK, South Africa, Brazil and India vari­ants have now been as­signed the Greek letters Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, respectively, according to the order of their detection.

Other variants of in­terest continue down the alphabet.

“While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misre­porting,” said the WHO.

The choice of the Greek alphabet came after months of deliber­ations. Other possibili­ties such as Greek gods, and invented, pseudo-classical names were considered, according to bacteriologist Mark Pallen, who was in­volved in the talks.

Another idea, to refer to variants of concern as VOC1, VOC2 and so on, was scrapped after Pallen pointed out pro­nunciation of the acro­nym could sound like an English swear word.

Historically, viruses have often been associ­ated with the locations from which they are thought to have emerged, such as the Ebola virus, which is named after a Congolese river.

But this can be dam­aging and inaccurate such as with the “Span­ish flu” pandemic of 1918. Its origins are un­known, although the earliest cases are believed to have emerged in the US state of Kansas.

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

In the US, Asians have been attacked dur­ing the pandemic, with activists and police say­ing anti-Asian senti­ment was fuelled by Trump’s comments blaming the pandemic on China. President Joe Biden last month signed a law against Covid-19 hate crimes.

Before the new WHO scheme, some scientists had adopted their own simplified nomencla­ture for variants, such as in a February paper using bird names.

However, this was criticised because it could imperil birds and by the mother of a girl named Robin.


Eastern Eye

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