Greek alphabet for Covid variants will avoid stigma, says WHO (Photo: iStock)
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.