The World Health Organization has proposed new names for Coronavirus variants using letters from the Greek alphabet.
WHO's naming scheme will be used to label noteworthy strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, such as 'Delta' for the variant first detected in India, also known as B.1.617.2.
Naming variants after a geographical location — such as a country — is misleading because a Covid variant didn't necessarily emerge where it was initially identified, but people from that place are still blamed for a variant's spread of a Covid variant.
In a letter to the journal Science, researchers concluded that "scientific and media reports should not refer to variants by country names" but admitted that "mutation-based or lineage names are difficult to say and write."
Mark Pallen, professor of microbial genomics at the Quadram Institute and University of East Anglia, suggested alternatives that use a pre-generated list of proper nouns because labels like B.1.617.2 are so tricky to pronounce and remember.
WHO designed its Greek naming scheme to allow people to talk about Covid variants without using inappropriate labels, says Pallen. "It was so that the media and the public could communicate quickly about the variants."
WHO will assign a Greek letter after selecting a 'Variant of Interest' (VOI) — a strain with mutations that seem to increase local cases or impact health — or a 'Variant of Concern' (VOC) that also spreads more readily, is more virulent (causes severe disease) or can escape the immunity provided by vaccines.
As of 31 May 2021, WHO had assigned names to six VOIs and four VOCs. The four worrying variants have been named Alpha (AKA lineage B.1.1.7), Beta (B.1.351), Gamma (P.1) and Delta (B.1.617.2), which were first detected in the UK, South Africa, Brazil and India respectively.
WHO's scheme has solved a major problem: labels based on location can create social stigma and lead to racism. Using Greek letters provides a practical solution because the new names are easy to say, write and remember. There's no excuse not to use them.
Persuading the media to use Greek letters could still be a challenge, however. A press release that announces the scheme ends by saying that, to avoid using names that are stigmatizing and discriminatory, "WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels."
WHO's approach has some minor limitations. Delta Airlines probably won't be pleased to have its brand associated with a Covid variant, for example, and it's not clear what will happen after variants inevitably outnumber the letters from the Greek alphabet.