The WHO’s guidance is intended for the general public: Scientists will continue using traditional (and highly technical) naming conventions. Those names haven’t fully caught on in the wider discourse, because nonscientists can easily get tripped up when trying to remember the difference between the B.1.1.7 strand, which was first detected in Britain, or the B.1.617.2 variant that was initially documented in India.
Greek letters are easier to pronounce and “more practical to be discussed by non-scientific audiences,” the WHO said in its announcement.
The move comes shortly after India asked social media platforms to take down references to an “Indian variant” of the coronavirus. But the WHO had been working on a new labeling convention for some time and considered alternatives such as the names of figures from Greek mythology. Nomenclature and communications experts from around the world were consulted, along with scientists who track the variants.
WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove told Stat News that governments could be more willing to disclose the existence of a newly detected variant if they’re sure that it won’t be named after their country.
The Geneva-based body has long warned against naming infectious diseases after geographical locations. “This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected,” Keiji Fukuda, then a top WHO official, said in 2015.
“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.”
Numerous attacks against people of Asian heritage have been reported since the start of the pandemic, which began in China. South Asian people have also reporting experiencing harassment since the variant that the WHO now calls Delta started spreading around the world.
In past years, scientists have also used Greek letters to name hurricanes that form in the Atlantic Ocean after all letters in the standard A-Z alphabet have been exhausted. But after the 2020 season, which saw a record 30 hurricanes, the World Meteorological Organization announced plans to abandon the practice on the grounds that it was causing too much confusion and names like “Theta” and “Zeta” were too easily mixed up.
This year, the World Meteorological Association has come up with a list of additional names, including “Deshawn” and “Orlanda,” that can be used in place of the Greek letters.
Some experts fear the WHO’s new system for coronavirus variants won’t catch on, either. “It would have been good to have thought about this nomenclature early,” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told CNN. “I think it’s just a lot for people to think about this far down the line.”