Do you have trouble keeping the names of Covid-19 variants straight, and struggle to distinguish B.1.1.7 from B.1.351 or B.1.617.2?

The World Health Organization wants to help. On Monday, it announced a new naming system it devised for so-called variants of interest and variants of concern, the forms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus with important mutations.

Each variant will be given a name from the Greek alphabet, in a bid to both simplify the public discussion and to strip some of the stigma from the emergence of new variants. A country may be more willing to report it has found a new variant if it knows the new version of the virus will be identified as Rho or Sigma rather than with the country’s name, Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s coronavirus lead, told STAT in an interview.

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Under the new scheme, B.1.1.7, the variant first identified in Britain, will be known as Alpha and B.1.351, the variant first spotted in South Africa, will be Beta. P.1, the variant first detected in Brazil, will be Gamma and B.1.671.2, the so-called Indian variant, is Delta.

When the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet have been exhausted, another series like it will be announced, Van Kerkhove said.

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A plan to simplify the nomenclature of the variants has been in the works for several months, led by the WHO’s Virus Evolution Working Group. But it was surprisingly tricky to come up with an acceptable system, Van Kerkhove said.

The initial plan was to create a bunch of two-syllable names that aren’t words — portmanteaus, said WHO’s Frank Konings, who leads the working group. But it quickly became apparent that too many were actually already claimed — some were the names of companies or locations, others were family names. Combining three syllables didn’t solve the problem and four syllables became unwieldy.

For a while, the group considered names of Greek gods and goddesses, but that was eventually nixed. The idea of just numbering them one, two, three, and so on was considered, but rejected because it was thought it would likely create confusion with the names the viruses are given in genetic sequence databases that track the evolution of the SARS-2.

“We’re not saying replace B.1.1.7, but really just to try to help some of the dialogue with the average person,” Van Kerkhove explained. “So that in public discourse, we could discuss some of these variants in more easy-to-use language.”

The Greek alphabet suggestion drew the approval of the experts the WHO convened to come up with the naming system, some of whom are members of the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses. That group is charged with naming new species of viruses — it named SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. But it does not name subspecies of viruses, which is why this fell to the WHO.

“I heard it’s sometimes quite a challenge to come to an agreement with regards to nomenclature. This was a relatively straightforward discussion in getting to the point where everybody agreed,” Konings said.

The WHO will maintain a list of variants with their new names on its website.



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