An illustration of a coronavirus

An illustration of a coronavirus

Alissa Eckert, MSMI; Dan Higgins

THE World Health Organization (WHO) has announced a naming system for variants of the coronavirus that uses letters of the Greek alphabet.

Under the new naming scheme, the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the UK, commonly referred to as the Kent variant, is labelled “alpha”, the B.1.351 variant identified in South Africa is “beta”, the P.1 variant which first originated in Brazil is “gamma” and the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India is “delta”. These Greek letter labels will only be given to “variants of concern” and “variants of interest” as defined by the WHO.

Researchers had been calling for an alternative naming system for coronavirus variants for some time, arguing that the scientific names are challenging to pronounce, leading many people to refer to the variants by geographical names such as “the Indian variant”.

This “unfairly places blame on the people in those locations”, says Mark Pallen at the Quadram Institute in Norwich, UK, who recently developed an automated system to generate Latin and Greek-based names for new bacterial species. Writing in New Scientist in March, Pallen suggested that an approach similar to that used for naming storms might be useful for generating neutral and more memorable names for coronavirus variants.

The established systems for naming and tracking genetic lineages of the coronavirus will remain in use by scientists and in scientific research, as these “convey important scientific information”, the WHO said in a press release on 31 May. But the new Greek alphabet-based labels will “help with public discussion”, tweeted Maria Van Kerkhove, covid-19 technical lead for the WHO.

Avoiding referring to coronavirus variants by geographical names could also encourage countries to detect and report variants rapidly, which is crucial for managing their spread. “No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” said Kerkhove. “Globally, we need robust surveillance for variants.”

Viruses naturally mutate and change as they spread through populations. Most mutations to SARS-CoV-2 are harmless and have little impact, but new variants arise when some of the mutations result in the evolution of forms of the virus that have different properties to the original virus.

According to the WHO, variants of concern include variants of the coronavirus that have been found to spread more quickly, cause more serious illness or resist drugs or vaccines. Alpha, beta, gamma and delta have all been designated as variants of concern, and cases of the delta variant are rising in the UK. As of 27 May, figures from Public Health England showed that more than 38 per cent of new coronavirus cases in the UK were caused by the delta variant.

Variants of interest are those found to cause community transmission, spread to multiple countries or which are otherwise assessed as significant by the WHO’s SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution Working Group. Examples of variants of interest include epsilon, samples of which were first documented in the US in March 2020, and theta, which was first documented in the Philippines in January this year.

“To simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels,” the WHO said.

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