Coronavirus variants to be named using Greek letters, WHO says

illustration of a SARS-CoV-2 viral particle
(Image credit: Getty/Radoslav Zilinsky)

Coronavirus variants of concern and variants of interest will now be named using a system similar to hurricane naming, wherein each variant gets assigned a letter of the Greek alphabet, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced Monday (May 31).

For example, the coronavirus variant first found in the U.K. will be known as Alpha, according to a statement from the WHO. This new label does not replace the variant's scientific name, B.1.1.7, but can now serve as an easy-to-pronounce alternative to that jumble of letters and numbers. 

Likewise, the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa will now be called Beta. The P.1 variant found in Brazil is now Gamma, and the B.1.617.2 discovered in India is Delta. The order of the letters bears no scientific meaning but indicates the order in which each variant was flagged by the WHO as a potential threat, The New York Times reported.

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"While they have their advantages, these scientific names [like B.1.1.7] can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting," the WHO statement reads. The letters and numbers reference evolutionary relationships between the different variants, with each character representing a subgroup of the preceding character, Nature reported in January. This notation system is helpful to the scientists who study the variants, but the names can be burdensome in everyday use.

"As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected," the WHO statement reads. This trend can be seen in news headlines, which often refer to the P.1 variant as the so-called Brazil variant, for example, or to B.1.617.2 as the Indian variant. This naming shorthand can be "stigmatizing and discriminatory," the statement says.

What's more, just because a variant was discovered in a particular country doesn't mean it originated there, so these names can be misleading, Nature reported. And multiple variants may be discovered in the same country. 

One concern is that tying the name of a country to a variant of concern may generate stigma and potentially deter countries from reporting new variants, Oliver Pybus, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford who co-developed the scientific naming system that led to the name B.1.1.7 being adopted, told Nature.  

"The last thing we want to do is dissuade any particular place from reporting they’ve got a new concerning variant — in fact, we want to do the opposite," Pybus said.

With these concerns in mind, the WHO’s Virus Evolution Working Group set to work several months ago to develop a new variant-naming system, STAT News reported. The group initially tried generating two-, three- and four-syllable names that weren't real words, but these often turned out to be too cumbersome or happened to be existing business or family names, Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s coronavirus lead, told STAT.

The team also discussed naming the variants after Greek gods, or simply numbering the variants sequentially as they emerge, but they eventually settled on the Greek alphabet naming system instead. 

"These labels were chosen after wide consultation and a review of many potential naming systems," according to the WHO statement. "WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities." If at some point the WHO runs out of Greek letters, another, similar naming system will likely be announced to follow the Greek alphabet, Van Kerkhove told STAT.

In addition to the four "variants of concern" — Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta — the WHO has identified and named six "variants of interest," which are also being closely monitored, according to a statement. This includes the Epsilon (B.1.427/B.1.429) and Iota (B.1.526) variants found in the U.S. in March 2021, as well as other variants found in India, Brazil and the Philippines. 

These variants of interest bear mutations that may affect the transmissibility of the virus or the severity of the disease it triggers. If the WHO concludes that these genetic changes pose a significant threat to public health, they can recategorize the variants of interest as variants of concern, and the elevated variants would retain their same Greek letter labels.

So far, the Greek letters Alpha through Kappa have been assigned to different variants. Charts of all the variants and their new names can be found on the WHO website

Originally published on Live Science.

Nicoletta Lanese
Channel Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.