WHO revising COVID-19 variant naming to avoid stigmatizing countries

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced changes to how it will label COVID-19 variants on Monday, saying the variants will be named using letters of the Greek alphabet instead of the place where they were first discovered.

The WHO declared that variants of interest and variants of concern will receive a designated Greek letter listed on its website.

Researchers will continue to use the scientific names for each variant, created by Pango and GISAID, because the names include helpful information on the strains.

Why the change: The naming system was developed after the WHO consulted experts from around the world following concerns that labeling the variants by their location of discovery is “stigmatizing” and “discriminatory.”

The international health organization predicts the new system “will be easier and more practical” for nonscientists to use.

“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 stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

“To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels,” the statement continued.

New names: The WHO identifies four “variants of concern,” including B.1.1.7, the variant first discovered in the United Kingdom, which will be called Alpha. The B.1.351 variant first found in South Africa was labeled as Beta, the P.1 variant first discovered in Brazil became Gamma and the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India is now Delta.