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

With quite a few variants of the novel coronavirus having emerged worldwide, folks all over the place have struggled to maintain monitor of their advanced alphanumeric names

Representational picture. PTI

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

With quite a few variants of the novel coronavirus having emerged worldwide, folks all over the place have struggled to maintain monitor of their advanced alphanumeric names. The casual different in lots of circumstances has been to determine variants in line with the locations the place they have been first seen. Nonetheless, this technique has raised considerations over its potential to result in stigma in opposition to nations or areas.

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

The WHO’s transfer got here practically three weeks after India objected to the B.1.617 mutant of the novel coronavirus being termed an ‘Indian Variant’ in media reviews with the Union well being ministry mentioning that the UN’s high well being organ has not used the phrase “Indian” for this pressure in its paperwork.

New nomenclature

The brand new system applies to variants of concern — probably the most troubling of which 4 are in circulation — and the second-level variants of curiosity being tracked, as reported by AFP.

Beneath the brand new system, the variants of concern tackle the next names: the hitherto so-called British variant B.1.1.7 turns into Alpha; the B.1.351 first found in South Africa turns into Beta, whereas the Brazilian P.1 turns into Gamma.


The lineage names resembling B. will nonetheless proceed for use in scientific circles, for the mutation info that their identify conveys.

“Whereas they (lineage names) have their benefits, these scientific names could be troublesome to say and recall, and are susceptible to misreporting,” the WHO stated in an announcement.

“Consequently, folks usually resort to calling variants by the locations the place they’re detected, which is stigmatising and discriminatory. To keep away from this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages nationwide authorities, media retailers and others to undertake these new labels,” the highest UN well being physique stated.

The WHO has been making an attempt to provide you with simplified new nomenclature for the variants for a number of months.

The Greek alphabet accommodates 24 letters however there is no such thing as a plan but as to the place to go subsequent if they’re exhausted. Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta and Iota have already been ascribed to variants of curiosity.

Historic perspective

The COVID-19 pandemic is probably the primary time that variants of the identical illness are getting widespread public consideration. Nonetheless, the method of naming illnesses and pathogens has usually been fraught with controversy.

Traditionally, viruses have usually been related to the places from which they’re thought to have emerged resembling Ebola, which is called after the Congolese river of the identical identify.

However this may be damaging for the locations and sometimes inaccurate resembling with the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918 whose origins are unknown.

Additional, these norms of naming illnesses after locations haven’t all the time been constant. An article in The Quint has quoted well being programs skilled Chandrakant Lahariya as saying, “We all know that for lengthy, these illnesses and viruses have been named after the town or locations the place they (are stated to have) originated from…However one of many main watershed (moments) got here in 2009 when Swine Flu – H1N1 – was initially being reported within the US, Canada and another components. So if the identical conference would have been adopted, then it ought to have been known as ‘American Flu’. However as you understand, individuals are actually good, so that they rapidly moved to name it Swine Flu. So it’s very handy – the one who wields the ability determines the naming of the illnesses and viruses.”

Whereas the alphanumeric official names of illnesses and their variants could also be complicated for the common individual, they serve essential functions for specialists resembling microbiologists and virologists. Names of viruses are given by a gaggle of virologists and phylogeneticists that serve on the Worldwide Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).

Whereas there is no such thing as a common technique for naming viruses, a typical technique to classify a virus is by its antigens — parts that provoke an immune response and whose mutations are notably essential. For instance, as famous by Nationwide Geographic, Influenza A has two distinguished antigens, generally known as H (which stands for hemagglutinin) and N (which stands for neuraminidase). Each time these antigens mutate, they get assigned a brand new quantity. That is how probably the most notorious pandemic influenza subtype obtained its identify H1N1.

Within the current context, with the COVID-19 pandemic having precipitated devastation and disruption the world over, it is just pure that nomenclature related to it should get far more consideration. The WHO’s set of names introduced on Monday might assist making discussions concerning the virus simpler.

With inputs from companies

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