You can call it the British variant. Or GRY. Or 20I/501Y.V1. Or B.1.1.7. They are all names for the same variant of the SARS-COV-2 virus, which causes covid-19. And now there‘s a fifth name: Alpha.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has decided to allocate all variants of the virus that it closely follows a letter from the Greek alphabet. Because the most commonly used names, named after the place where the variant was first found, can be stigmatizing. And the scientific names are too complicated for use by the general public.
That is why it was necessary to come up with a different system, says the Dutch virologist Frank Konings, who, as head of the WHO Virus Evolution Working Group, oversaw the process of changing names. This working group is engaged in classifying the different variants of the virus.
“ We started this in February,” says Kings. “There are all sorts of options discussed. It was not allowed to become names of individuals or companies, but it had to be easy to remember.” For example, the group has considered combining syllables of names. So the beginning of one name and the end of the other. But there were combinations that looked too much like real names.
Names of gods from ancient times also passed the review. Just numbering from 1 was an option, but that would seem too much like the scientific name, says Kings. Ultimately, a designation was chosen which is a clear range and which is as neutral as possible.
So far, there are ten variants that have been given a name. The first four are the so-called ‘variants of concern‘. These are variants that have been shown to be more contagious, deadly or, for example, affect the efficacy of vaccines. The British variant now calls the WHO variant Alpha, the South African variant is called Beta, the Brazilian is called Gamma and the Indian variant is called Delta.
Then there are six ‘variants of interest‘ until Kappa. The WHO is monitoring these variants, but it has not yet been proven whether they have a real impact on the course of pandemic, for example because they are more contagious.
Kings: “We are aware that the Greek alphabet has only 24 letters. We’re already working to see what kind of series we‘re going to use next.”
The scientific names continue to exist and are used by the WHO. The new names are mainly intended for public communication, says Kings: “Naming variants after countries or locations can be stigmatizing.”
Last year, for example, many people of Asian origin, including in the Netherlands, were confronted with racist remarks or even violence. This was fueled by US President Trump who referred to the SARS-COV-2 virus as the Chinese virus or even the “kung flu”.
Spanish and swine flu
The fact that viruses and variants are popularly named after areas is nothing new. Just think of Spanish, Mexican and Hong Kong flu. Or the Ebola virus, named after the river in Africa where the virus was first found.
Only that name doesn’t necessarily have to say anything about the origin. The Spanish flu probably didn‘t start in Spain, but got that name because the Spanish press wrote about the influenza outbreak in 1918. The country was neutral in the First World War, but countries that did participate censored the media so as not to demoralize the population. That’s how it looked as if Spain was ground zero from the outbreak.
Too much established
Similar coincidences play a role in the discovery of variants of this virus. “They are often discovered in countries that sequence many,” says Kings. Sequencing is mapping the genetic code of a virus. “But that does not mean that that variant originated there, only that it was discovered there.” The WHO fears that countries will be anxious to sequencing a lot if there is the adverse effect that a variant is named after your country.
The only question is whether a new system still makes sense. Are the names of the existing variants not too well established? Kings: “Adapting afterwards will no longer be done, but we are now going to use this in all our public communications. And hopefully media too.”