News|Coronavirus pandemic
WHO renames COVID-19 variants with Greek letters to avoid stigma
The UN health agency says one aim of the move is to avoid stigmatising the countries where coronavirus variants are first detected.
The four coronavirus variants considered of concern by the UN health agency and known generally by the public as the UK, South Africa, Brazil and India variants have now been given the letters Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta according to the order of their detection [File: Fernando Carranza/Reuters]
31 May 2021
Coronavirus variants are to be known by letters of the Greek alphabet to avoid misreporting and stigmatising nations where they were first detected, the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced.
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.
“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 stigmatising and discriminatory.”

The four coronavirus variants considered of concern by the United Nations agency and known generally by the public as the UK, South Africa, Brazil and India variants have now been given the letters Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta according to the order of their detection.
Other variants of interest continue down the alphabet.
“The labels don’t replace existing scientific names, which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research,” WHO’s technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove tweeted.
“These labels will help with public discussion about VOC/VOI as the numbering system can be difficult to follow.”
WHO in the statement said it encouraged media outlets and national authorities to adopt the new labels.
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 with former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus”.
Months of deliberations
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.
Before the new WHO scheme, some scientists had adopted their own simplified nomenclature for variants such as a February paper using bird names. However, it was criticised on the grounds that this could imperil birds and by the mother of a girl named Robin.
Vietnam detects new hybrid of two COVID variants
Vietnam’s health minister says new strain combines variants first identified in UK and India.
29 May 2021
UK embarks on major reopening despite fears over COVID variant
People can now meet indoors in England, Scotland and Wales, but caution urged as a variant first found in India spreads.
17 May 2021
UK warns new coronavirus variant may delay reopening
The emergence of the B.1.617.2 coronavirus variant has led some scientists to call for the reopening to be delayed.
14 May 2021
COVID variant first detected in India found in 44 countries: WHO
B.1.617 variant of virus found in samples uploaded to open-access database ‘from 44 countries in all six WHO regions’.
12 May 2021
Two police officers killed at far-right TLP rally in Pakistan
Prisons in paradise: Refugees detentions in Greece raise alarm
Taper time: US Fed chief says bank should reduce asset purchases
Outcry as Israel labels Palestinian rights groups ‘terrorists’
Actor Alec Baldwin shoots filmer dead with prop gun on set
Afghan journalists lament ‘bleak’ future for media under Taliban
As UK resists COVID measures, experts fear ‘devastating winter’
Trump’s new social media backer tied to China lifestyle venture
Follow Al Jazeera English:
© 2021 Al Jazeera Media Network