The World Health Organization is implementing the new system to avoid negatively impacting the countries where the strains were first identified

By Julie Mazziotta
June 02, 2021 01:36 PM
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A model of COVID-19, known as coronavirus
A model of COVID-19
| Credit: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty

The World Health Organization has implemented a new system to name variants of COVID-19 that use Greek letters instead of country names to avoid stigmatizing the regions.

Prior to the change, which was announced Monday, the strains were given numerical names and often referred to by the country where they were first discovered. The B.1.1.7 variant first found in the United Kingdom, for example, was typically called the U.K. variant, and B.1.351 was known as the South Africa variant. The newer B.1.617.2 variant has been called the India variant.

The new system gives the strains "non-stigmatizing labels," WHO said in a statement, using letters from the Greek alphabet. The B.1.1.7 strain will now be called Alpha, B.1.351 is renamed Beta and the B.1.617.2 variant is Delta. If the 24 letters in the Greek alphabet have been used up, WHO will move to a new naming system.

WHO said that the Greek letters are easier for people to pronounce and "more practical to be discussed by non-scientific audiences." Scientists will continue using the numerical system.

After the Delta strain was identified and moved quickly through India, the country's government asked social media platforms to remove content that called it the "India variant" out of concern that the name would lead to stigmatization.

WHO was concerned that under the old system, countries would not want to report new strains because it would be branded with their nation's name. The Greek letters will hopefully avoid that issue and make them easier for people to refer to, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's lead COVID-19 epidemiologist, told Stat News.

"We're not saying replace B.1.1.7, but really just to try to help some of the dialogue with the average person," Van Kerkhove explained. "So that in public discourse, we could discuss some of these variants in more easy-to-use language."

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This has long been a concern for WHO, and came up during past epidemics, the Washington Post reported.

"This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected," Keiji Fukuda, a top WHO official at the time, said in 2015.

"We've seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals," he continued. "This can have serious consequences for peoples' lives and livelihoods."