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WHO Renames COVID-19 Variants Using Greek Alphabet

Coronavirus variants.

Andriy Onufriyenko / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The World Health Organization has renamed coronavirus variants using the Greek alphabet.
  • The WHO hopes that this change will help combat the stigma and discrimination associated with geography-based names.
  • Experts say this name change is good and will encourage people to refrain from associating a virus or pathogen with the place it was first identified.

Once the original strain of coronavirus started mutating, commonly used names for the variants were based on where they were first identified—U.K., Brazil, India, and South Africa—even though they were also given scientific names, like B.1.1.7.  

Now, the World Health Organization (WHO) is renaming these variants using the Greek alphabet. They hope these easy-to-remember names will help reduce stigma and discrimination in the variant reporting process.

The WHO says these news labels were decided upon after wide consultation with expert groups around the world. The organization will continue to assign new names for variants that are designated “variants of interest” or “variants of concern.”

The new names for the variants are:

  • Alpha: first identified in the U.K.
  • Beta: first sampled in South Africa
  • Gamma: first detected in Brazil
  • Delta: first reported in India

This change is important—even if it seems small, Katie Baca, PhD, a preceptor at Harvard University’s Department of the History of Science, tells Verywell.

Baca explains that even though viruses don’t have regional bounds, using a geography-based naming method implies that they do.

This can “lead to a false sense of security and an overemphasis on cordoning approaches to pandemic management,” Baca says. “[It] can also create stigma—as the term ‘Chinese virus’ did for Asian Americans—and disincentivize reporting of new variants.”

The Problem With Geography-Based Names

As Baca points out, naming a virus or pathogen based on where it was first identified can lead to stigma and perpetuate racism and discrimination against certain communities. The COVID-19 pandemic sparked an uptick in reported anti-Asian racism and hate crimes as political leaders and the media called SARS-CoV-2 the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus” early on.

What’s more, these location-based names are also frequently incorrect, Baca says.

“The first country to report viruses or other pathogens may not be the country in which that virus or pathogen originated or even the country in which it is most prevalent,” she says.

Omar Khan, PhD, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto, echoes this stance and tells Verywell there is a difference between first appearance and first detection. This nuance gets lost when a virus is named after a location. 

“Something that was first identified in a country does not necessarily mean it came from that country,” Khan says. “Furthermore, some places do not perform regular testing and thus can completely miss the emergence of a new variant.”

An example? The “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918. While Spain was the country that first reported the virus, experts say it is unlikely the virus originated there. Still, the pandemic is associated with Spain, even today.

More recent examples of geography-based names include Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and West Nile Virus. In 2015, the WHO issued a note urging the media to avoid referring to new diseases based on geographic locations.

“We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals,” Keiji Fukuda, then-assistant director-general of health security at the WHO, said. “This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

All of these reasons further show how geography-based nomenclature “absolutely acts as a deterrent to public disclosure about pathogens,” Baca says, and can discourage local public health units from widely sharing information. She says contagious diseases often carry a stigma that political leaders and citizens are forced to navigate. 

"Just as nobody would want to be the next ‘Typhoid Mary,’ no country wants to be featured in a disease name,” Baca says. 

What This Means For You

When you come across information about the COVID-19 variants, you will now likely see them referred to by their new name. Most government agencies and media outlets will begin using the new Greek alphabet naming system.

How the New Naming System Can Help

As the WHO points out, it can be confusing for the average person to use scientific names for variants. This, in turn, can prompt people to use geography-based names that are easier to remember. 

Khan says that using the Greek alphabet system will likely help with adherence—especially since the scientific names of some variants only differ by a number.  

“The scientific names, e.g. B.1.617.2, have not changed and will continue to be used,” Khan says. “But to facilitate easier discussions with the broader public, including in non-technical communications, the new names are meant to be easier and more accessible labels.”

The new naming system will also hopefully be a blueprint for future viruses and diseases, Baca says, and signal a move away from the harmful approach of geography-based names.

“We must remember that science and biology do not exist in a vacuum. Society impacts biology and biology impacts society,” Baca says. “The social dimensions of pandemics—the names we gave this virus and its variants, the vaccine deployment processes, the regulations we imposed—shape both our disease experience and the biology of the disease itself.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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