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COVID-19 variants get new names based on Greek alphabet

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It’s hoped they’ll be less ‘stigmatizing and discriminatory’ than country-based labels

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced a new naming system for notable variants of virus that causes COVID-19 based on letters of the Greek alphabet. The new names aren’t intended to replace official scientific designations, but it’s hoped they’ll provide labels that are easier to remember and say than alphanumeric names, and less stigmatizing than the informal use of countries’ names to identify new variants.

The WHO has a list of existing “variants of concern” and “variants of interest” that have been given new labels under the Greek alphabet naming scheme. “Alpha” refers to B.1.1.7, the variant first documented in the UK, while “Delta” is B.1.617.2, which was first documented in India. In total, the WHO has already used 10 letters of the 24 letter strong Greek alphabet.

Although naming diseases after geographical locations has a long history that includes the Ebola virus (named after the Congolese river) and the Spanish Flu, The Guardian notes, its informal usage has become contentious. Former president Donald Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” on more than one occasion, which has been cited as contributing to a recent wave of hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the US. The WHO calls the practice of referring to variants by their place of detection “stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

“No country should be stigmatised for detecting and reporting variants,” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said in comments reported by The Guardian.

The name COVID-19 was officially given to the disease in February 2020. Prior to its official naming, the illness was colloquially referred to as “Wuhan pneumonia” or “Wuhan flu.”