On 31 May the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a new way of naming Covid-19 variants of concern: for simplicity, and to avoid stigmatising countries, they would be labelled according to the Greek alphabet.
So the “Kent” variant dominant in the UK over the winter period is now known as “Alpha”, the “South African” variant is “Beta”, the “Brazil” variant is “Gamma” and the “Indian” variant is “Delta”.
The new labels are for use in public discussion, rather than replacing the scientific names, and are already appearing in news pieces.
It took several months for the WHO’s Virus Evolution Working Group to come up with an acceptable nomenclature, having ruled out the names of Greek gods and goddesses, a numerical system and two-syllable portmanteaus blending names.
“The labels for VOI/VOC [variants of interest/variants of concern] are simple, easy to say and remember and are based on the Greek alphabet, a system that was chosen following wide consultation and a review of several potential systems,” tweeted the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove.
“No country should be stigmatised for detecting and reporting variants,” she added.
The history of naming pandemics is fraught. Since the 15th century, outbreaks of syphilis were named according to a country’s enemy or rival, or the race perceived to have introduced it to their population: the French called it the “Neapolitan disease”, while the Italians went with the “Gallic disease”. The English called it the “French disease”, the Russians called it the “Polish disease”, the Polish and the Persians called it the “Turkish disease”, and Turkey called it the “Christian disease”. It was the “Chinese pox” in Japan, the “Portuguese disease” in India and the “British disease” in Tahiti.
Depending on where you caught it, a form of xenophobia or scapegoating came to define the disease.
The Spanish Flu of 1918 did not originate in Spain. As Laura Spinney wrote in the New Statesman, “its country of origin remains unknown”. It only earned its name because newspapers in neutral Spain during the First World War had more freedom to report on the illness than the jingoistic press of the warring nations – giving the impression the country was particularly hard hit. This led to racist narratives about the Spanish being somehow unclean or diseased.
Labelling constantly mutating diseases based on geography can backfire. The Former Ukip MEP Roger Helmer was accused of hypocrisy when the strain referred to as the “Kent” variant caught the world’s attention last winter. “Can we please stop referring to new-variant Covid as ‘originating in the UK’,” Helmer tweeted. “It was FIRST IDENTIFIED in the UK, which is an entirely different thing.”
This came after he defended Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese virus” to refer to Covid-19, tweeting: “It originated in China. It’s the Chinese virus. QED.”
There are strong arguments in favour of neutrality when it comes to naming viruses. The emergence of Covid-19 in Wuhan and the “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” labels that followed came at a time of rising hate crime against people who appear to be of south-east Asian heritage, according to the UK charity Protection Approaches.
In the first weeks of the pandemic police received a dramatically higher number of reports of hate crime from east and southeast Asians, according to the charity’s data: reports from the first quarter of 2020 suggest there was a 300 per cent increase on previous years, while research shows a 900 per cent rise in the global use of hashtags on Twitter encouraging violence against China and Chinese people and a 200 per cent increase in global traffic to hate sites and specific posts against Asians.
The charity does not have specific data on the impact of the use of the term “Indian variant”, but people of Indian origin, from doctors in the US to migrant workers in Singapore, have reported suffering from discrimination since the label became commonly used worldwide.
“It is critical that all of us, but especially those with the largest platforms, are responsible about the language we use,” said Andy Fearn, the co-executive director of Protection Approaches.
“Over the past year east and southeast Asian communities have faced appalling levels of hate as a direct result of the reporting around Covid-19 and language used by global leaders. As new variants of Covid-19 emerge, we must be continue to be vigilant to how the way we talk about the virus can fuel similar waves of hate.”
Yet the WHO’s Greek letter alternative has not been embraced by all in the scientific community. Chris Smith, a virologist at the University of Cambridge and presenter of BBC 5 Live’s Science podcast, told the channel on 4 June that the new labels hinder communications about science.
“The problem is no one knows what they mean and as a result it’s very confusing for people because then we’ve introduced a new set of nomenclature alongside these numbers and letters,” he said. “So while people get comfortable with these new Greek letters, I’m trying to still use the names that people are still familiar with so that we can get our heads around what is going on.”
He also questioned how the Greek lettering system would work regarding “variants of variants”. “The gaping gap in the WHO’s politically correct agenda to try to label these things away from where they originate is that, for instance, if you take the Vietnam situation, Vietnam has a variant of coronavirus circulating there at the moment that appears to be an offshoot of the Indian variant of coronavirus… until it gets a Greek letter, what are people calling it? The ‘Vietnam variant’! The system doesn’t work!”
This current phase of the pandemic is all about the spread and control of new variants. Adopting a clear and neutral way of labelling these variants will be crucial in ensuring the public is well informed and safe – both from infection and persecution.