Covid-19 variants get official names

Covid-19 variants had been assigned new names by the World Health Organisation. The SA variant is now known as Beta.
Covid-19 variants had been assigned new names by the World Health Organisation. The SA variant is now known as Beta.
Image: 123RF/ktsdesign

Many may associate the words “alpha”, “beta” and “gamma” with scientific jargon that describes different forms of energy, or even with investment portfolios. But now they will take on a new meaning as the World Health Organisation uses these terms as names for the different new Covid-19 variants identified across the world.

These letters of the Greek alphabets will, the WHO hopes, avoid stigma and discrimination against the countries where these strains were originally detected.

On Monday, the WHO said it has assigned these “simple, easy to say and remember labels” to describe key various strains, including the SA variant 501Y.V2 which was first detected towards the end of 2020. The variant was found to be far more transmissible than the original virus experienced by the country during its first wave, spreading about 50% faster.

This variant will now be known as “Beta”, while the variant first discovered in the UK — known as 501Y.V1 — will be known as “Alpha”.

The variant identified in Brazil (501Y.V3) has been renamed “Gamma” while India’s B.1.671.2 will now be known as “Delta”.

“These labels were chosen after wide consultation and a review of many potential naming systems. WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities,” the WHO said in a statement.

The world body said it will assign labels for those variants that it has designated as variants of interest or variants of concern.

“These labels do not replace existing scientific names 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 are prone to misreporting. 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.”

Variants of interest have also been given new labels. The US variant 452R.v1 is now known as Epsilon, Brazil’s similar variant has been named Zeta, the Philippines one has been named Thetha while India’s 452R.V3 or B.1617.1 has been named Kappa.

The names of different variants, which are generally considered cumbersome, has resulted in many, particularly the mainstream media, associating these with countries of origin.  But identifying a virus by a geographical location not only feeds into racism and xenophobia, but experts have warned that they quickly become obsolete.

Earlier this year a group of SA and international scientists took a strong stand against calling 501.V2 “the SA variant”.

Researchers warned that labelling it “the SA variant” just because of the country’s in-depth analysis of the variant, was unjust and damaging.

Prof Tulio de Oliveira, director of KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP), said at the time: “Health ministries across the world have said that SA has the worst variant in the world, and they associate our country with the name of the variant. It could easily have emerged elsewhere but it's only thanks to our excellent genomic surveillance here in SA that we know more and more about it.”

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