The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a new naming system to identify the ever-growing number of COVID-19 variants sweeping our world.
Along with solving the inconsistencies and confusion seen when talking about these variants, the WHO also hopes to address some of the stigmatization that comes with naming diseases after places. Instead, the names will run through letters of the Greek alphabet loosely based on the date the variant was identified by scientists.
Under the new naming system:
B.1.1.7 – previously known as the UK variant – will be called “Alpha.”
B.1.351 – better known as the South African variant – will be named “Beta.”
P.1 – aka the Brazilian variant – will be “Gamma.”
B.1.617.2 – formerly the Indian variant – will be known as “Delta.”
They also list a number of variants of interest that have been identified across the world, such as "Epsilon" and "Iota," both first identified in the US in March 2021
None of this will change the way scientists refer to the variants, but the new system hopes to make talking about these variants easier for the public and the media, the WHO says.
“While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting. As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory. To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels,” the WHO said in a news release.
There’s a long history of naming diseases after geographic places, from Zika and Ebola to German measles and the Spanish flu. However, in recent years, many have highlighted how the practice of naming infectious diseases after places can be problematic. For one, naming diseases after foreign places has often been used to give the disease a sense of “otherness.” Equally, this tendency has well-established ties to racism and xenophobia, as marginalized groups of people have often been used as scapegoats during disease outbreaks. Geographic-based names are often inconsistently used too, leading to confusion and potential misreporting.
Calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan flu” or the “Chinese virus” is perhaps the most obvious modern-day example. While the damaging effect of this label is hard to definitively prove, it's undoubtedly been used in many discriminatory settings. Some estimates suggest that hate crimes against Asians in the US increased by 150 percent in 2020, the year COVID-19 became a pandemic.
Describing the 1918 influenza pandemic as the “Spanish flu” is another good example of how geographic-based names are flawed. Since Spain remained neutral during the First World War, they didn’t impose wartime censorship and newspapers were free to report the severity of the outbreak, such as King Alfonso XIII becoming severely sick. In reality, the virus didn't originate in Spain nor was the outbreak notably more severe there. Elsewhere, people looked to other places to name the outbreak. In Brazil, the disease was called “the German flu,” while in Poland it was known as “the Bolshevik disease.”
Conversely, HIV was first identified in New York and Legionnaires' was first picked up in Philadelphia, but these places are scarcely associated with the disease.
All in all, using geographic-based names is considered to be a confusing, inconsistent, and potentially derogatory way to talk about diseases.
“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods," Dr Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security at the WHO, said in 2015.