WHO Produces Easier Naming System for SARS-CoV-2 Variants
By Sean Price

Viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, produce different variants – versions that accumulate enough mutations to make them distinct from the original virus. Remembering the names of those variants just got a little easier for patients thanks to a World Health Organization (WHO) naming system based on Greek letters.

Until now, lay people have had to wrestle with variant names, such as “B.1.1.7” and “B.1.617.2,” that were originally designed to help scientists. WHO’s naming convention based on the Greek alphabet relabels B.1.1.7 as “Alpha” and B.1.617.2 as “Delta,” for example.  

The original scientific monikers were produced as part of Phylogenetic Assignment of Named Global Outbreak (PANGO) software, a tool developed in the United Kingdom to name SARS-CoV-2 lineages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other scientific naming systems include GISAID and Nextstrain.

“These [Greek alphabet] labels do not replace existing scientific names (e.g., those assigned by GISAID, Nextstrain, and PANGO), which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research,” WHO said.

However, scientific variant names are difficult to say and recall, the agency says. Since people frequently confuse them, they often resort to calling variants by the place names where the variants were first detected – a practice WHO calls “stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

For instance, in May, the Indian government complained to WHO that B.1.617.2 – first detected in that country in October 2020 – was being called the “Indian variant,” according to the BBC. And in some countries, including the U.S., multiple variants have developed, making it confusing when people referred to a variant by the country name. variant by the country name.

As always, check the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 Resource Center regularly for up-to-date news and the latest TMA materials for your practice. for up-to-date news and the latest TMA materials for your practice.

Last Updated On

June 22, 2021

Originally Published On

June 22, 2021

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Sean Price


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Sean Price is a reporter for Texas Medicine and Texas Medicine Today. He grew up in Fort Worth and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. He's worked as an award-winning writer and editor for a variety of national magazine, book, and website publishers in New York and Washington. He's also helped produce Texas-based marketing campaigns designed to promote public health. Sean lives in Austin and enjoys hiking, photography, and spending time with his wife and two sons.

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