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WHO Uses Greek Letters for Naming COVID Variants


Family members of Vijay Raju, who died from coronavirus disease mourn before his cremation in Bengaluru, India, May 13, 2021. The WHO now uses Greek letters to call the virus variants around the world. (REUTERS/Samuel Rajkumar/File Photo)
WHO Uses Greek Letters for Naming COVID Variants
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Goodbye B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1.

Hello Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced May 31 that it has given new names to the several versions, or variants, of new coronavirus spreading around the world. Based on Greek letters, the names are simple and easy to remember.

The international health agency recognized that the scientific names can be difficult to say. It said, “As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

As early as 2015, the WHO had advised scientists, officials and the media to avoid naming new infectious diseases after people, animals and places. It said to avoid names like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, or Legionnaires Disease, which have since become part of medical history. Instead, the WHO said, names should be descriptive terms based on general symptoms, or signs of sickness, caused by the disease.

Dr. Keiji Fukuda was WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Security at the time. He said, “This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected.” He noted that disease names of the past have caused damage to economies, trade, and members of religious or ethnic communities.

In the United States, there has been a large increase of incidents against Asian-Americans since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Some people blamed ethnic Asians for the spread of the coronavirus. The first cases of the disease were reported in Wuhan, China.

A group of Los Angeles, California-based organizations released a report called Stop AAPI Hate. It found that reports of anti-Asian discrimination increased after then-President Donald Trump repeatedly used the term “Chinese virus” last year to describe the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Last month, Agence-France Presse reported that the Indian government ordered the country’s social media to remove all writings that referred to the “Indian variant.” The government said the term could suggest India was to blame for the disease.

The WHO says it will continue to use the scientific name SARS-CoV-2 to describe the coronavirus that was first identified in Wuhan. The disease it causes is still called coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19. And scientists will continue to use the difficult-to-remember names of the variants in their research.

For the public, the variant first identified in Britain will now be called Alpha. The one first identified in South Africa will be known as Beta; the one in Brazil as Gamma; and the one in India as Delta.

As new variants of concern and of interest are identified, the WHO said it will work with experts to name them after Greek letters.

I'm Caty Weaver.

Hai Do wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

stigmatize - v. to describe or regard in a way that shows strong disapproval

trivial - adj. not important

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