WHO renames Covid variants after Greek alphabet

New designations to avoid blame being attached to country where they were identified

An Accredited Social Health Cctivist (ASHA) health worker registers a woman before collecting a sample to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus, at Bolamaranahalli village on the outskirts of Bangalore on May 31, 2021. / AFP / Manjunath Kiran
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The World Health Organisation on Monday said Covid variants have been given letters from the Greek alphabet to aid identification and avoid stigmatising the country in which they were first identified.

It means long designations, such as the so-called South African strain's B.1.351, 501Y.V2 and 20H/501Y.V2, will be discarded.

Letters have been assigned according to the order in which variants were detected.

This means the variant found in the UK is Alpha, the one identified in South Africa is Beta, the discovery in Brazil is Gamma and the strain uncovered in India is Delta.

Other variants of interest continue down the alphabet.

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

The choice of the Greek alphabet came after months of deliberations in which other possibilities such as Greek gods and invented, pseudo-classical names were considered by experts.

But many were already brands or companies.

Historically, viruses have been associated with the locations from which they are thought to have emerged, such as Ebola, which is named after a Congolese river.

The problem is that this approach can be reputationally damaging and often inaccurate.

A case in point is the so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which is actually of unknown origin.

"No country should be stigmatised for detecting and reporting variants," WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said.

Before the new WHO scheme, several scientists had adopted their own simplified categorisation for variants and one scientific paper in February used bird names.

Even this proved troublesome, with some saying an avian name could imperil birds, and the mother of a girl called Robin objecting.