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Alpha, Beta Instead Of Britain, South Africa. Why The WHO Is Renaming COVID Variants

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Photo by Fabrice Coffrini AFP via Getty Images

The WHO says it will start assigning new names for variants of the coronavirus based on letters from the Greek alphabet — part of an effort to help avoid stigmatization around the virus.

The World Health Organization is hoping to simplify the way the public talks about the growing number of variants of the coronavirus. It will start assigning different letters of the Greek alphabet to each new mutation of the virus.

The new system takes the names of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and moves them away from what can be sometimes confusing scientific nomenclature, or shorthand that puts heavy emphasis on where the variants were first discovered.

For example, under the new system, the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the U.K., will be known as Alpha. The B.1.351 variant, first spotted in South Africa, will be called Beta, while the variant initially found in Brazil, known as P.1, will go by Gamma.

The new names won't officially replace the scientific names already assigned to new variants, but the WHO said it is making the change in an attempt to avoid fueling stigma toward nations where new variants arise.

"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 Monday. "As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory."

It's meant to avoid stigmatization

The danger of stigmatization is an issue the WHO has warned about since the early days of the pandemic when some politicians, most notably former President Donald Trump, would routinely refer to the virus as the "China virus" or the "Wuhan virus." Trump said he used the terms "to be accurate" and maintained they were "not racist at all," yet he continued to use them even after the WHO cautioned against language that can "perpetuate negative stereotypes or assumptions."

Use of such language became widespread. In one study released in May, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco directly linked Trump's first tweet about a "Chinese virus" to an exponential rise in anti-Asian language on Twitter.

The rhetoric has been followed by violence

More than a year later, much of that rhetoric has given way to violence. Last month, the group Stop AAPI Hate released a report documenting 6,603 hate incidents between March 2020 and March 2021. Physical assaults rose from 10% of total hate incidents in 2020 to almost 17% in 2021, according to the report.

In India, sensitivity around stigmatization led the government last month to ask social media companies to remove any references to the "India variant" from their platforms. A government official told Reuters the notice was issued to send a "loud and clear" message that mentions of "Indian variant" fuel miscommunication.

The new names are going fast

It's a message that was echoed Monday by Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead for the COVID-19 response. "No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants," she wrote on Twitter. Under the WHO's new naming system, the variant, known among scientists as B.1.617.2, is called the Delta variant.

The new system applies to two different classifications of variants — "variants of concern," considered the most potentially dangerous, and second-level "variants of interest."

There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet. The WHO has already assigned 10 of them — four to variants of concern and six to variants of interest.

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