The World Health Organization has created a new system for naming variants of COVID-19, moving away from place names that can be difficult to pronounce, difficult to remember, and stigmatize a specific country.
The new system, which was announced on Monday, is based on the letters of the Greek alphabet. The UK variant, called by scientists B.1.1.7, will now be Alpha. B.1.351, the South African variant, will now be Beta and the B.1.617.2 variant discovered in India will now be known as Delta.
When the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet are exhausted, the WHO will announce another series.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco.
It can also make countries more open to reporting new variations if they are not afraid to be associated with them forever in the public mind.
In a press release. The WHO has said that while scientific names have advantages, they can be difficult to pronounce and are subject to reporting errors.
“As a result, people often resort to call variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory,” the WHO said.
It is also often wrong. The place where a disease or virus is first discovered is usually not where it actually first appeared.
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For example, some researchers believe that the Spanish Flu of 1918 first appeared in Haskell County, Kansas, or possibly France.
In the case of the SARS-CoV-2 variants, the virus that causes COVID-19, where they are first identified is more dependent on the quality of the genomic surveillance system in the area where the virus is present, not there. where the mutation appeared, Gandhi said.
The new WHO naming system was created in collaboration with experts and researchers who monitor and assess the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
Scientific nomenclature systems established for tracking SARS-CoV-2 mutation will continue to be used in the scientific community, the WHO said.
This includes the Pango System, from the Phylogenetic Assignment of Named Global Outbreak group, GISAID, the Global Influenza Data Sharing Initiative and NextStrain, a collaboration between researchers in Seattle and Basel, Switzerland.
The new WHO names are supposed to be easier to remember and more practical for an unscientific audience, as the names of the viral lineage do not stumble. For example, the variant discovered in the United States in March of last year is known as B.1.427 to scientists.
Calling something “the South African variant” may make people from South Africa fearful, even if it is not clear that the variant actually emerged there.
Not all geographic names are stigmatizing, said Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Here in Wisconsin, we have the Lacrosse encephalitis virus, but no one ever stigmatizes Lacrosse, Wisconsin. And Norovirus is from Norwalk, Ohio, but people are not afraid of Ohio,” he said. he declared.
But for SARS-CoV-2, which has caused such global devastation, the names can have serious consequences. “It’s always a good idea to have a name that is just a name,” he said.