Why coronavirus variants are named using the Greek alphabet

ALPHA, BETA, gamma, delta. Those affected by covid-19—which is, one way or another, more or less everyone on the planet—might need a refresher course on the ancient Greek alphabet after the World Health Organisation (WHO) introduced, on May 31st, a new way to refer to variants of concern of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes that illness. There are two reasons for this new nomenclature: simplicity and the avoidance of hurt feelings.

The Economist Today

Hand-picked stories, in your inbox

A daily email with the best of our journalism

The simplicity is obvious. The variant now known as beta, for example, was the second to be designated a variant of concern, and previously landed with the appellations 501Y.V2 or B.1.351 or 20H/501Y.V2 or GH/501Y.V2 or the South African variant, depending on whom you asked. These old names are not abandoned. Experts will no doubt continue to use them. But for general purposes, journalism included, the simplicity of “beta” is probably better—as is “alpha” for B.1.1.7, etc, the so-called Kent or UK or British variant, “gamma” for P.1, etc, (the Brazilian variant) and “delta” for B.1.617.2 (the Indian variant). The next letters on the list, if it comes to it, which it probably will, are epsilon, zeta, eta and theta.

As for the desire to avoid hurt feelings, some may consider it oversensitivity. As the list above suggests, it is common, if not always official practice, to refer to viruses by the name of the place where they were first identified. The Ebola virus is named after a river in Congo, the Zika virus after a forest in Uganda and the West Nile virus after a district of that country. Similarly, the influenza pandemic of 1968 was widely known at the time as “Hong Kong” flu, even though it almost certainly originated not in that then-British colony, but in mainland China. That was a lot simpler for the public than calling it H3N2, after the particular versions of two proteins, haemagglutinin and neuraminidase, that characterised it. Likewise, the H2N2 outbreak of 1957, first detected in Singapore, was known in the West as Asian flu.

Whether the men and maids of Kent actually feel tarnished by the fact that SARS-CoV-2 variant alpha was first detected in their county is moot. Some Spaniards, though, certainly are miffed that the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1920 was widely known as Spanish flu even though it did not originate in Spain. In this case the reason was that the countries where the illness really was rife early on in its history were at war, and wartime censorship played the epidemic down. The press in neutral Spain was not so constrained. Hence the misapprehension about what was going on where. More recently, in the context of the current pandemic, some people, led by then-president Donald Trump of America, took to referring to SARS-CoV-2 as “the Chinese virus” in a way that many felt went beyond mere neutral labelling, and shaded into propaganda and name-calling.

The Greek-letter labelling proposed by the WHO is therefore an official attempt to provide the convenience of simple, uncontroversial monikers. Greek letters are often used as parts of scientific labels, which adds authority to the idea. And, at least to those familiar with the alphabet concerned, the names instantly convey information about what order the variants were discovered in. And to the actual evolution of the virus, it matters not one iota.

Dig deeper

All our stories relating to the pandemic and the vaccines can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also listen to The Jab, our podcast on the race between injections and infections, and find trackers showing the global roll-out of vaccines, excess deaths by country and the virus’s spread across Europe and America.


Source link

About doc

Check Also

Patch News

Nearly 4,000 MA Residents Got Coronavirus After Vaccinations

MASSACHUSETTS — About one out of every 1,000 Massachusetts residents who have been fully vaccinated …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *