If you haven’t yet mastered the name of the latest variant of the coronavirus to turn nations upside down – B.1.617.2, as evolutionary biologists call it – then don’t worry: the World Health Organization has proposed a solution.
The group said Monday that it had developed a less technical and easier-to-pronounce system for naming variants – the mutated versions of the virus that have sparked new flare-ups around the world.
Variants are assigned to letters of the Greek alphabet in the order in which they are classified as a potential threat by the WHO
For example, B.1.617.2, which contributed to a fatal increase in India, was named Delta in the new system. This variant can spread even faster than B.1.1.7, the variant discovered in the UK that has contributed to devastating waves of cases around the world. (The new name of B.1.1.7 is Alpha.)
Scientists are constantly adding long sequences of letters and numbers to new variants for their purposes, but hope that Greek letters will roll off the tongue of non-scientists more easily.
There is also a deeper motivation: The letter-number system was so complicated that many people instead referred to variants with the locations where they were discovered (e.g. the Indian variant for B.1.617.2). Scientists fear these informal nicknames can be both inaccurate and stigmatizing, penalizing countries for investing in the genome sequencing necessary to sound the alarm of new mutations that may have surfaced elsewhere.
Whether the Greek letters stick is another question. It has been months since experts convened by the WHO started debating the issue, spreading labels like “the British variant” and “the South African variant” in the news media.
The experts said they considered a number of alternatives, such as taking syllables from existing words to form new words. But too many of those syllable combinations are already recognizable names of places or companies, they said.
Incidentally, the Greek letters had just been relieved of another task: the World Meteorological Organization announced in March that it would no longer use them to name hurricanes.