In an effort to avoid stigma, the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that COVID-19 variants are to be named after letters of the Greek alphabet. As such the variant (B.1.617.2) prevalent in India in the second wave of infections is now called “Delta”.
Mark Pallen, a bacteriologist, who was involved in the talks, said this decision came after months of deliberations with experts considering a range of other possibilities such as Greek Gods. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO epidemiologist, believes no country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants.
WHO has named four variants of concern, known to the public as the UK/Kent (B.1.1.7) is now called Alpha; South Africa (B.1.351) is now called Beta; Brazil (P.1) is now called Gamma; and India (B.1.617.2) is Delta respectively. The world body said the labels do not replace existing scientific names involving numbers, Roman letters and full stops, which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research.
“While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall and prone to misreporting,” WHO said. “As a result, people often result to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory.” To avoid this as well as to simplify public communications, WHO is encouraging national authorities and media outlets to adopt the new labels.
It has to be noted that historically, diseases have been named after the locations they were thought to have developed, such as the Ebola virus which takes its name from the Congolese river. The World Health Organization says such associations can be damaging for those places and are often inaccurate, as is the case with the “Spanish Flu” of 1918, whose origins are unknown. It should also be noted that the Indian government had last month ordered social media platforms to take down content that referred to the “Indian variant”. This was cited as an example of its sensitivity to accusations that it had mishandled the latest outbreak.
Moreover, the anti-Asian hate crime had also been triggered in the United States as a result of the pandemic and associations between COVID-19 and the site of its first outbreak in Wuhan, China. The former US President Donald Trump had referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus”