Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta: WHO officially names COVID-19 variants of concern

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has introduced a new naming convention for the coronavirus variants of concern, in a move aimed at eliminating the potential stigma around places where those mutant COVID-19 strains were first identified.

The new convention uses letters from the Greek alphabet to identify the various variants, which up to this point have been identified with a clunky string of letters and numbers — or by the problematic convention of referring to the geographical origins of where they first emerged.

The WHO says it came up with the new labels after several months of discussion and criticism around some nations being stigmatized for identifying new strains.

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The organization has repeatedly urged people not to refer to the variants by profiling people or nationalities, especially in the wake of a surge in anti-Asian racism around the world.

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Nevertheless, some politicians, including former U.S. president Donald Trump, have used terms such as “the China virus” in order to smear rival nations. Certain countries have also been used as a shorthand to refer to the variants of concern, in lieu of their more awkward scientific designations.

The variants will now have names that evoke late-season hurricanes or fraternities, rather than being referred to by a string of numbers or a country of origin.

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

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

Here’s how the new names will be applied:

  • Variant B.1.1.7, which first emerged from the United Kingdom, will be known as Alpha.
  • Variant B.1.351, which was first detected in South Africa last May, will be known as Beta.
  • Gamma will be used to refer to P.1, the variant first detected in Brazil last November.
  • Delta will be the new name for B.1.617.2, the poorly nicknamed “double mutant” strain that was first identified in India last October.

The WHO has also applied letters to six variants of interest, and will continue to move through the 24-letter Greek alphabet as other variants emerge.

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The WHO considered using the names of Greek gods or pseudo-classical monikers, according to Mark Pallen, a bacteriologist who was involved in the talks. That approach was thrown out as many of those were already used as brand names. They also considered using the names of plants, fruits or lost religions but decided against it, the WHO said.

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Some scientists were already using bird names as unofficial terms for the variants, but that naming scheme was also dismissed amid fears that certain birds would be unfairly blamed for the variants.

Some past diseases have been named for the locations where they were first identified, such as the Ebola virus, which is named for a river in Congo. Such names have proven to be problematic, as they have led to groups of people being stigmatized and unfairly blamed for diseases.

With files from Reuters

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