For example, the WHO calls the “British variant” (B.1.1.7) “Alpha” and the “South African variant” (B.1.351) is “beta”.
Variant P.1, first detected in Brazil and identified as a variant of concern in January, was tagged “Gamma”. Variant B.1.617.2, first found in India and recently reclassified from variant of interest to variant of concern, is “Delta”. Interesting variations received labels ranging from “Epsilon” to “Kappa”.
All viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, can mutate or change over time. This is what leads to variants.
The WHO noted in Monday’s announcement that the new labels do not replace existing scientific names for the coronavirus variants. Scientific names “will continue to be used in research,” Van Kerkhove tweeted.
“Although they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to pronounce and remember, and are subject to misrepresentation. As a result, people often resort to variations by where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory, “according to the WHO announcement.
This may also be incorrect, as there is evidence that the mutations that mark at least some of the variants have independently arisen in several different places.
“To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO is encouraging national authorities, the media and others to adopt these new labels,” WHO said.
Some fear that the WHO’s new Greek alphabet naming system has come a bit too late – and now the system could make it even more complicated to describe variants as there will be three potential names: their scientific name, references based on where a variant was first identified and now the WHO Greek alphabet labeling.
“There are definitely issues of stigma when the variants are described and then labeled according to this country. We know there is already a backlash in India, regarding the Indian variant and people who mention it that way.” said Adalja. “So I understand why this is happening. I think it’s just a lot for people to think about this long term.”