COVID-19 variants to be identified by Greek letters: Process of naming pathogens has often been controversial-Health News , Firstpost

With numerous variants of the novel coronavirus having emerged worldwide, people everywhere have struggled to keep track of their complex alphanumeric names

Representational image. PTI

The World Health Organisation on Monday announced that COVID-19 variants are to be known by letters of the Greek alphabet. The B.1.617.1 and B.1.617.2 variants of COVID-19 , first identified in India, have been named as ‘Kappa’ and ‘Delta’ respectively.

With numerous variants of the novel coronavirus having emerged worldwide, people everywhere have struggled to keep track of their complex alphanumeric names. The informal alternative in many cases has been to identify variants according to the places where they were first seen. However, this method has raised concerns over its potential to lead to stigma against countries or regions.

It is for these reasons that the WHO has announced the new names. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical COVID-19 lead, tweeted on Monday —

The WHO’s move came nearly three weeks after India objected to the B.1.617 mutant of the novel coronavirus being termed an ‘Indian Variant’ in media reports with the Union health ministry pointing out that the UN’s top health organ has not used the word “Indian” for this strain in its documents.

New nomenclature

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, as reported by AFP.

Under the new system, the variants of concern take on the following names: the hitherto so-called British variant B.1.1.7 becomes Alpha; the B.1.351 first discovered in South Africa becomes Beta, while the Brazilian P.1 becomes Gamma.


The lineage names such as B. will still continue to be used in scientific circles, for the mutation information that their name conveys.

“While they (lineage names) 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. To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels,” the top UN health body said.

The WHO has been trying to come up with simplified new nomenclature for the variants for several months.

The Greek alphabet contains 24 letters but there is no plan yet as to where to go next if they are exhausted. Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta and Iota have already been ascribed to variants of interest.

Historical perspective

The COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps the first time that variants of the same disease are getting widespread public attention. However, the process of naming diseases and pathogens has often been fraught with controversy.

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 Congolese river of the same name.

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.

Further, these norms of naming diseases after places have not always been consistent. An article in The Quint has quoted health systems expert Chandrakant Lahariya as saying, “We know that for long, these diseases and viruses have been named after the city or places where they (are said to have) originated from…But one of the major watershed (moments) came in 2009 when Swine Flu – H1N1 – was initially being reported in the US, Canada and some other parts. So if the same convention would have been followed, then it should have been called ‘American Flu’. But as you know, people are really smart, so they quickly moved to call it Swine Flu. So it’s very convenient – the one who wields the power determines the naming of the diseases and viruses.”

While the alphanumeric official names of diseases and their variants may be confusing for the average person, they serve important purposes for experts such as microbiologists and virologists. Names of viruses are given by a group of virologists and phylogeneticists that serve on the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).

While there is no universal method for naming viruses, a typical way to classify a virus is by its antigens — components that provoke an immune response and whose mutations are particularly important. For example, as noted by National Geographic, Influenza A has two prominent antigens, known as H (which stands for hemagglutinin) and N (which stands for neuraminidase). Every time those antigens mutate, they get assigned a new number. This is how the most infamous pandemic influenza subtype got its name H1N1.

In the present context, with the COVID-19 pandemic having caused devastation and disruption the world over, it is only natural that nomenclature associated with it will get much more attention. The WHO’s set of names announced on Monday could help making discussions about the virus easier.

With inputs from agencies

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