GENEVA, Switzerland (WLNS) – The World Health Organization has decided to start identifying major variants of COVID-19 with Greek letters like alpha and beta.
COVID-19 variants are mutations of the virus with different traits. Since they started emerging, health officials have been referring to them with alphanumeric codes, like B.1.1.7. Officials say these names are accurate, but difficult to say and recall.
In the general public, it has been more common to refer to the variants based on where they were first detected, which may or may not be where they originated. For example, B.1.1.7 was sometimes referred to as the UK variant, since it was first found in the United Kingdom.
This has been problematic since a variant may become more prevalent somewhere other than where it was first identified and more than one variant could emerge from a single country.
Additionally, Reuters reports that WHO officials were worried that this naming convention could negatively stigmatize those countries.
Instead, when variants become concerning enough to warrant a name, they will be given a letter of the Greek alphabet, which officials say will be familiar and easy to remember.
B.1.1.7 is now the alpha variant. The variants first identified in South Africa, Brazil, and India are now beta, gamma, and delta, respectively.
WHO officials considered other naming schemes, like simpler numbers, Greek gods, or invented pseudo-classical words, but each of these had their own drawbacks. Many turned out to be brand names in several countries.