India’s government has sent notices to social media platforms ordering them to take down content that refers to an “Indian variant” of the COVID-19 virus, Reuters reported. The letter from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology sent Friday was not made public, but was viewed by several news outlets.
It was not clear which social media outlets received the letter, but India’s government has recently ordered Twitter to remove tweets and Facebook and Instagram to take down posts that were critical of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is no such variant of COVID-19 scientifically cited as such by the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO has not associated the term ‘Indian Variant’ with the B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus in any of its reports,” the letter states, adding that the phrase is “completely FALSE.”
A variant of the coronavirus first detected in India last year, B.1.617 is believed responsible for the latest wave of COVID-19 cases in south Asia. The World Health Organization has classified it as a variant of global concern, with some evidence that it is more contagious than other strains of the virus.
But while India’s approach to censoring information about the coronavirus and variants is extreme, WHO and other health organizations and scientists are critical of the practice of referring to viruses and variants with geographic nicknames, since it can be stigmatizing and inaccurate. The WHO’s 2015 guidance for naming infectious diseases discourages using place names, human names, or animal species names.
However, as National Geographic notes in its very good explainer about how virus variants get their names, the current naming conventions are cumbersome and confusing, making them difficult for non-scientists to grasp or remember. National Geographic reports that WHO is working with virologists to create a new way of naming viruses.