British and Indian variants renamed ‘Alpha’ and ‘Delta’ according to new WHO Covid-19 guidelines

A pedestrian walks past a sign directing members of the public to a covid-19 testing center in Bolton, England on May 28, 2021.

A pedestrian walks past a sign directing members of the public to a covid-19 testing center in Bolton, England on May 28, 2021.
Photo: Oli Scarff / AFP (Getty Images)

The so-called British and Indian variants of covid-19 have gotten name changes under new guidelines released by the World Health Organization on Monday. The British variant will now be called “Alpha” and the mutant The variant first identified in India will be called “Delta” as the WHO tries to stop the stigma of the regions that were the first to sequence these new variants of the coronavirus.

The new naming system uses the Greek alphabet, for variants of WHO interest (less severe) and Variants of concern (more alarming). Variants are given names in the order in which they were first identified by the group.

The Indian variant, known to scientists as B.1.617.2, has been dubbed the Delta variant. The so-called South African variant, known to scientists as B.1.351, is now called the Gamma variant.

The British variant, identified as B.1.1.7 by scientists, is now called the Alpha variant. Interestingly, the British actually call their variant the ‘Kent’ variant after the place in the UK where it was found, which is how arbitrary these names can be.

The long string of numbers and letters will always be used by scientists, but concerns have been expressed about regional names and the incentives in place when terms like ‘UK variant’ are used.

Like the New York Times Explain:

Scientists fear these informal nicknames could be both inaccurate and stigmatizing, punishing countries for investing in the genome sequencing needed to sound the alarm about new mutations that may well have emerged elsewhere.

Whether the Greek letters stick is another matter. It has been months since experts convened by the WHO began discussing the issue, allowing labels like “the British variant” and “the South African variant” to proliferate in the news media.

None of this style of redesign is new, even when it comes to covid-19. If you remember early 2020, the disease had a bunch of different names, both formally and informally, including the ‘novel coronavirus’, 2019-nCoV, Wuhan virus, and SARS-CoV-2. It was finally given the most widely used name, covid-19, in mid-February 2020.

Names like the Wuhan virus, although initially harmlessly used in media reports, were later used as a weapon by far-right figures such as former US President Donald Trump to turn the disease into a racist weapon of the new cold war.

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Clara Barnard

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