The World Health Organisation (WHO) has proposed ew names for Coronavirus variants using letters from the Greek alphabet, in order to avoid stigma to the geographical locations where the variant was initially identified but did not necessarily emerge from, reports MedicalBrief.
As of 31 May 2021, WHO has assigned names to six VOIs and four VOCs. The four worrying variants have been named Alpha (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.
These Greek letters will not replace existing scientific names. If more than 24 variants are officially identified, the system runs out of Greek letters, and a new naming programme will be announced.
WHO will assign a Greek letter to whatever it considers to be a 'Variant of Interest' (VOI) — a strain with mutations that seem to increase local cases of Covid or impact health — or a 'Variant of Concern' (VOC) that's of interest but also more deadly, spreads more readily or can escape the immunity provided by vaccines.
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, according to bacteriologist Mark Pallen who was involved in the talks. But many were already brands, companies or alien names.
Another idea to refer to variants of concern as VOC1, VOC2 etc was scrapped after he pointed out it resembled an English swear word.
Historically, viruses have often been associated with the locations from which they are thought to have emerged such as Ebola which is named after the eponymous Congolese river. But this can be damaging for the places and often inaccurate such as with the so-called “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918 whose origins are unknown.
WHO's discussions involved representatives from three groups — GISAID, NextStrain and Pango — that are involved in tracking the evolution and spread of viruses behind epidemics and pandemics, each of which has its own naming scheme.
According to Pallen, WHO wanted to reassure the three groups that the organisation's naming scheme wouldn’t replace theirs, which use precise terminology to describe a variant's properties. Some researchers suggested turning a variant's key property — such as a mutation — into words, but the idea was too complicated.