The World Health Organization (WHO) has unveiled what it called “easy-to-say” Greek labels for coronavirus variants, set to replace designations based on the country of origin that are commonly used in the media.
The new labels would not substitute the scientific names of the variants – typically an intricate succession of characters and numbers – but rather would “help in public discussion” of the new Covid-19 strains, Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, announced on Monday.
Per WHO’s proposal, the Covid-19 mutation known as ‘the UK variant’, or B.1.1.7, should be referred to as ‘Alpha’, while the strain widespread in South Africa is rebranded as ‘Beta’. Two Brazilian variants, known as P.1 and P.2, become ‘Gamma’ and ‘Zeta’, respectively, while two subliniages of the so-called ‘Indian variant’, B.1.617.1 and B.1.617.2, are listed as ‘Kappa’ and ‘Delta’.
Two further coronavirus variants, first reported by the US in March, are designated as ‘Epsilon’ and ‘Iota’ by the WHO.
The rebranding is ostensibly aimed at removing the stigma from countries where certain strains are believed to have originated.
“No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” Van Kerkhove said, noting also that the numbering system used by researchers, but shunned by non-scientific publications, “can be difficult to follow.”
No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants.Globally, we need robust surveillance for variants, incl epi, molecular and sequencing to be carried out and shared. We need to continue to do all we can to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2 #COVID19@WHO
— Maria Van Kerkhove (@mvankerkhove) May 31, 2021
The move comes amid growing outrage from India over the description of the B.1.617 viral mutation as the ‘Indian variant’. India’s Health Ministry said last month that the label used across the media is misleading, since the WHO has not designated the strain as such. New Delhi has reportedly asked social media platforms to remove all posts that refer to the strain as the ‘Indian variant’, as the designation is harmful to the country’s image.
India is not alone in its distaste for country-based Covid-19 classification. In February, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, then co-chair of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, told CNN in an interview to stop calling the strain widespread in his country the ‘South African variant’, referring to it instead by its scientific name, 501Y.V2.
The idea of having ‘easy-to-say’ Greek labels to avoid stigmatization immediately courted controversy online. While some people argued that the Greek labels might not be as easy to remember, others said the WHO risks running out of letters at some point, since the Greek alphabet only has 24 letters.
How stupid is that. So much easier to remember existing names as they are readily known places. Now many people will have to learn Greek names. Most people will not know their alpha from their delta.
— Brian (@gravelwalks) May 31, 2021
“Zeta-Eta-Theta? Easy to say (?), easy to mix up. And what are we doing when we are running out of letters? Sorry, not going to use this. PANGO was fine,” Florian Krammer, microbiology professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tweeted.
Another person noted that there is already an existing classification of human coronaviruses, where they are divided into alpha, beta, gamma, and delta sub-groupings, and the rebranding will only add to the confusion.
This is appallingly poor, there is already alpha beta gamma delta classification for coronaviruses overall.Also it adds further complication, we have to keep going back to the chart to check “so gamma is Brazil and P1”, no one in public bother to do that. So double complexity.
— zen_chip (@zen_chip) May 31, 2021
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