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In-Depth: Why the World Health Organization just renamed COVID variants

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The World Health Organization wants you to stop using names like the U.K. variant or the India variant.
Under the WHO’s new naming system unveiled this week, the U.K. variant is now the Alpha variant.

The variant first detected in South Africa is now the Beta variant. The Brazil variant is the Gamma variant. The India variant is now the Delta variant.

The WHO says the naming convention, based on the Greek alphabet, will be easier for non-scientific audiences and less stigmatizing than the location-based monikers.

Scientists say the name of a virus or variant can have an impact. One study released in May linked former President Donald Trump’s first tweet about a “Chinese virus” to an exponential rise in anti-Asian rhetoric on Twitter.

“If we don’t change the names and the terminology, then the racism will get sustained,” said San Francisco State University professor Russell Jeung, the cofounder of Stop AAPI Hate.

Stop AAPI Hate documented 6,603 incidents targeting Asian Americans from March 2020 until March 2021, ranging from verbal abuse to physical attacks.

“Time and time again, Asians have been attacked because people are threatened by us, and I think it’s because of the terminology,” he said. “I really blame the term ‘Chinese virus’ as being deadly for Asian Americans.”

Old NameLineageNew WHO NameDesignation
U.K. VariantB.1.1.7AlphaVariant of Concern
South Africa VariantB.1.351BetaVariant of Concern
Brazil VariantP.1GammaVariant of Concern
India VariantB.1.617.2DeltaVariant of Concern
California VariantB.1.427/B.1.429EpsilonVariant of Interest
Brazil VariantP.2ZetaVariant of Interest
Nigeria VariantB.1.525EtaVariant of Interest
Philippine VariantP.3ThetaVariant of Interest
New York VariantB.1.526IotaVariant of Interest
India VariantB.1.617.1KappaVariant of Interest

Location-based terminology is widespread among infectious diseases. Zika and West Nile Virus come from names of locations in Uganda. Ebola is named for an African river. Lyme disease is named after Lyme, Connecticut.

For over a century, doctors have known about the perils of linking a virus to the location where it was first detected. Take the 1918 Spanish Flu.

“It wasn’t accurate,” said UC San Francisco infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong.

Although there is still no consensus about where that H1N1 strain emerged, it “probably didn’t originate in Spain,” said Chin-Hong. “Some people even think it originated in the United States.”

The WHO said the Greek names are intended for general audiences and will not replace the numerical lineage names used by scientists like B.1.1.7 or B.1.351. Once the WHO flags a lineage as a “Variant of Interest” or the more severe designation of “Variant of Concern,” the health organization will assign the variant a Greek letter.

Dr. Chin-Hong said the new system certainly has benefits, but it has challenges too. There are 24 Greek letters. The WHO has already assigned 10 of them.

“There are so few [Greek letters] compared to the vast number of variants being created,” he said. “It’s going to be, I think, difficult to kind of keep track with what’s going on.”

Scientists have experimented with Greek letters before. In past years, the World Meteorological Organization turned to Greek letters for hurricane names after exhausting the English alphabet.

After a record number of storms during the 2020 season, the WMO said the Greek letters caused too much confusion and announced it would no longer use them.

There’s also the question of whether these Greek variant names can gain widespread adoption this far into the pandemic.

“Many would say it’s too little, too late for some of the high profile variants,” Dr. Chin-Hong said.

While the public may have trouble adapting to a new name for variants that have been circulating for months, he said unfortunately there may be plenty of opportunities to introduce Greek names in the future. Many scientists believe SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could resurface each year like influenza.

“The saddest thing for me is really the fact that we have to even come up with a system that might run out of names because we have ongoing transmission,” he said.

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