The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) announced the debut Monday of what it claimed to be a “simple, easy to say and remember” system for naming variants of the Chinese coronavirus, currently referred to by their origin countries.
The W.H.O. has mandated that British, Indian, South African, and other variants of the virus — which originated in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 — now be referred to by letters of the Greek alphabet. The W.H.O. has not yet formulated an alternate naming system should scientists discover more than 24 variants, the number of letters in the Greek alphabet.
The naming convention change, which the public health institution says is necessary to avoid the “stigmatizing and discriminatory” practice of naming pathogens by their origin, follows the similar logic for renaming what was once commonly known as the Wuhan or Chinese coronavirus. The virus is now known in the scientific community as “SARS-CoV-2,” while the disease it causes is “COVID-19.”
The name change comes after a surge of coverage in Chinese state media of yet another outbreak of coronavirus within its borders following its declaration in March 2020 that the Communist Party had defeated the virus. Outlets like the state-run Global Times have blamed the Indian coronavirus, and the nation of India in particular, for an outbreak detected in southern Guangzhou city this week. The W.H.O. did not name China or offer any specific examples of the “discriminatory” attitudes that labeling variants by their origin may engender.
“These labels were chosen after wide consultation and a review of many potential naming systems. W.H.O. 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 organization said in a public statement Monday.
The United Nations agency noted the Greek letter terms would not supplant the scientific names of the variants; for example, the British coronavirus variant’s official scientific name is B.1.1.7. Its new name, rather than “British variant,” will be “Alpha.” The organization branded the South African variant “Beta,” the Brazilian variant “Gamma,” and the Indian variant “Delta.”
“While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting,” the W.H.O. statement read. “As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory.”
W.H.O. did not address the potential that the location in which a variant appeared would relay important information, just as a scientific name would. It also did not address the potential of its new system to associate all variants with Greece or the Greek people, whose alphabet the system co-opts.
Updating this simplified table for the key properties of the major variants with their new @WHO Greek letter names via @mvankerkhove
There is 1 common feature for all: Vaccines Work pic.twitter.com/uGojKKmzoB
— Eric Topol (@EricTopol) May 31, 2021
Outside of the official statement on the matter, W.H.O. officials emphasized that their goal in adopting the Greek-letter system was to avoid discrimination and to prevent countries from not reporting the emergence of variants to avoid being associated with a deadly virus.
“No country should be stigmatised for detecting and reporting variants,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the W.H.O. official in charge of much of the coronavirus response, said Monday, according to the BBC.
The W.H.O. adopted new guidelines in 2015 encouraging the world to move away from naming diseases by their origin. The agency has not changed the names of several prominent pathogens named in this manner, however, such as the Ebola virus, named after an African river, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a disease caused by another coronavirus. At the time of the policy change, many scientists warned that it would likely hinder scientific understanding on the part of the general public.
“It will certainly lead to boring names and a lot of confusion,” infectious disease expert Linfa Wang told Science at the time. Another scientist quoted in the same article, German virologist Christian Drosten, warned, “You should not take political correctness so far that in the end no one is able to distinguish these diseases.”
Van Kerkhove, the W.H.O. coronavirus chief, lamented in January, “I think all of us are becoming very confused by the different variant names.” Speaking to Nature, she previewed that the agency sought “not include country names, because we want to remove any of the geopolitical issues.”
The director-general of the W.H.O., Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, took the lead in discouraging associating the Chinese coronavirus with China last year.
“Don’t attach locations or ethnicity to the disease, this is not a ‘Wuhan Virus,’ ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Asian Virus,'” Tedros said in March 2020. “The official name for the disease was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatisation — the ‘co’ stands for Corona, ‘vi’ for virus and ‘d’ for disease, 19 is because the disease emerged in 2019.”
Chinese state media coverage of the issue has yet to reform to adapt to this week’s W.H.O. guidelines. In an article titled “India-Detected Variants Rage Through Asian Countries” on Monday, the Global Times dismissed the entire nation of India as “slothful” and single-handedly responsible for regional outbreaks through its own laziness.
“The passive prevention and control measures by the Indian government have contributed to the variants spilling over to other Asian countries, Chinese observers said,” according to the propaganda outlet. “warning India’s neighboring countries to further raise their response levels and speed up vaccine administration rates to tackle the new threats.”
Studies have shown that many approved coronavirus vaccines work to stop variants as well as the original pathogen, a fact that the Global Times did not address in its protests. China has developed and approved four domestic vaccines for distribution, all of which, according to the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control Gao Fu, “don’t have very high protection rates.”
The Times nonetheless asserted Monday, “this wave of resurgence across Asia has been largely triggered by weak anti-epidemic measures taken by the Indian government.”
Among the parts of Asia suffering from increased coronavirus rates the Global Times listed is Guangzhou, a Chinese city notorious for extreme racist measures against black people at the height of the first wave of outbreaks last year. Guangzhou hotels, restaurants, and other businesses banned black-skinned people from doing business with them, allegedly as a response to “foreigners” bringing the Chinese coronavirus into the country from abroad. Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport shut down most of its inbound flights this weekend and the city has implemented a ban on “non-essential activities” in response to the alleged Indian variant wave currently affecting it.