The World Health Organization has announced a new naming system for variants of Covid-19, WHO Health Emergencies Programme Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove said. The names will not replace scientific names but were aimed at helping public discussion of “variants of interest/variants of concern”.
The world health body said it will use Greek letters to refer to variants first found in countries like the United Kingdom, South Africa and India.
The strain (B.1.1.7) first detected in Britain will be called the Alpha variant, the South African one (B.1.351) will be referred to as the Beta variant. The strain found first in Brazil (P.1) will be called the Gamma variants and the Indian strain, or B.1.617.2, will be known as the Delta variant.
“No country should be stigmatised for detecting and reporting variants,” she tweeted. “Globally, we need robust surveillance for variants, including epi, molecular and sequencing to be carried out and shared. We need to continue to do all we can to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.”
Kerkhove said that this could help in reaching out to a mass audience. “We’re not saying replace B.1.1.7, but really just to try to help some of the dialogue with the average person,” she told US-based website STAT. “So that in public discourse, we could discuss some of these variants in more easy-to-use language.”
The announcement comes amid growing concerns about a variant being attributed to a specific country. On May 12, the Indian government had objected to media reports using “Indian variant” to refer to the B.1.617 strain.
The WHO had then that it did not identify viruses or variants with names of countries where they were first reported.
The B.1.617 variant, first reported in India, contains two key mutations to the outer “spike” portion of the virus that attaches to human cells, according to Reuters. The World Health Organization has said the predominant lineage of B.1.617 was first identified in India last December, although an earlier version was spotted in October 2020.
On May 10, the WHO classified it as a “variant of concern,” which also includes mutations first detected in Britain, Brazil and South Africa. “There is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies,” Kerkhove had said.
On May 9, WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan had also said that vaccines, diagnostics and the same treatments that are used for the regular virus work for the B.1.617 variant too.