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WHO to use Greek alphabet for COVID-19 variants

Global body says naming coronavirus strains after geographic origins is ‘stigmatizing;’ UK variant to be known as Alpha, South African Beta, Brazilian Gamma, and Indian Delta

A person walks past a sign directing members of the public to a COVID-19 testing centre in Bolton, northwest England, on May 28, 2021. (Oli SCARFF / AFP)
A person walks past a sign directing members of the public to a COVID-19 testing centre in Bolton, northwest England, on May 28, 2021. (Oli SCARFF / AFP)

GENEVA — The World Health Organization announced Tuesday a new nomenclature for the COVID-19 variants that were previously — and somewhat uncomfortably — known either by their technical letter-number codes or by the countries in which they first appeared.

Hoping to strike a fair and more comprehensible balance, WHO said it will now refer to the most worrisome variants — known as “variants of concern” — by letters in the Greek alphabet.

“They will not replace existing scientific names, but are aimed to help in public discussion,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead.

The new system applies to variants of concern — the most troubling of which four are in circulation — and the second-level variants of interest being tracked.

So the first such variant of concern, which first appeared in Britain and was also known as B.1.1.7, will be known as the “alpha” variant. The second, which turned up in South Africa and has been referred to as B.1.351, will be known as the “beta” variant.

Retirees wait to receives a first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine in a tent during a mass vaccination program for the elderly at the clinic outside Johannesburg, South Africa, May 24, 2021. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

A third that first appeared in Brazil will be called the “gamma” variant and a fourth that first turned up in India the “delta” variant. Future variants that rise to “of concern” status will be labeled with subsequent letters in the Greek alphabet.

WHO said a group of experts came up with the new system, which will not replace scientific naming systems but will offer “simple, easy to say and remember labels” for variants.

‘Stigmatizing and discriminatory’

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

“As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory,” it said. “To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets, and others to adopt these new labels.”

People with COVID-19 symptoms wait to be assisted outside a hospital that is at full capacity in Ribeirao Preto, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, May 28, 2021. (Andre Penner/AP)

Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden signed a hate crimes law aimed at protecting Asian Americans who have suffered a surge in attacks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

US anti-extremism groups say the number of attacks and hate crimes against Asian Americans has exploded since the beginning of the crisis.

They lay some of the blame on former US president Donald Trump, who repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus.”

A health worker takes a nasal swab sample of a man to test for COVID-19 in Jammu, India, May 31, 2021. (Channi Anand/AP)

The WHO has been trying to come up with simplified new nomenclature for the variants for several months.

The Greek alphabet contains 24 letters but there is no plan yet as to where to go next if they are exhausted.

Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, and Iota have already been ascribed to variants of interest.

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