WE have come to know Covid variants as the place they originated from.
But now, global health leaders have announced new names for the strains to avoid “stigmatising” countries.
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Experts working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) have used letters of the Greek alphabet.
The Kent variant, which first emerged in the UK and spread around the world, has been labelled by the WHO as Alpha.
The Indian variant has been labelled Delta, the South African variant has been named Beta, and the Brazilian variant Gamma.
To make matters more confusing, the variants are also labelled by public health chiefs depending on their lineage – B.1.1.7 (Kent), B.1.617.2 (India), B.1.351 (South Africa) and P.1 (Brazil).
The WHO said these existing scientific names will not be replaced as they convey important scientific information.
"We're not saying replace B.1.1.7, but really just to try to help some of the dialogue with the average person," the WHO's Covid-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove told STAT News.
"So that in public discourse, we could discuss some of these variants in more easy-to-use language."
The WHO said: “While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting.
“As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatising and discriminatory.”
The WHO said these labels were chosen after wide consultation and a review of many naming systems.
What are the new names?
- Kent/B.1.1.7: Alpha
- India/B.1.617.2: Delta
- South Africa/B.1.351: Beta
- Brazil/P.1: Gamma
- Brazil/P.2: Zeta
- India/B.1.617.1: Kappa
- Philippines/P.3: Theta
- California/B.1.427/B.1.429: Epsilon
- New York/B.1.526 – Iota
See more on the WHO website.
Why the change?
Many variants of Sars-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19 – have been identified around the world.
They are usually tagged with a name depending on where they were first spotted by genetic sequencing.
But just because it was first detected in that country, it does not mean it started there.
And naming them by place can lead to problems – as hate crime has become rife against Asian people in the past year.
Anti-Asian hate crimes have been linked to rhetoric that blames China for the emergence and spread of the coronavirus.
Some advocate groups have directly blamed former US President Donald Trump, who often named Covid the "China virus" or the "kung flu".
It is hard to pin-point exactly where the virus, and new variants, originated.
However, variants are more likely to arise in places where there is high circulation of the coronavirus – for example India and Brazil.
The so-called Kent variant was thought to have developed in an immune-compromised person who was carrying the virus for several weeks.
Historically viruses have been named after the locations where they were first discovered.
For example, the Ebola virus was named for the river in Africa where the disease was first recognized in 1976.
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