It has taken nearly six months, but the World Health Organization (WHO) last week announced the first iteration of its naming system for two types of coronavirus variants to be used in public communications.
A committee of experts advising the WHO recommended using the Greek alphabet to describe ̵
The long-awaited system is intended for use by the media, politicians and the general public – and is published in Natural microbiology (F. Kings et al. Nature Microbiol. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41564-021-00932-w; 2021). It should have come earlier because its absence has driven the practice of naming variants after the places where they were discovered – such as the ‘Kent variant’, otherwise known as B.1.1.7. Under the WHO’s new system, B.1.1.7 is also called Alpha. The genus B.1.617.2, first identified in India, is now called Delta.
The new system is both a more user-friendly alternative and designed to reduce the geographical stigma and discrimination that can arise from associating a virus with a location. It is also important because governments can be hesitant when countries are nominated by news organizations that have millions of readers and viewers. They may delay the collection of data on coronavirus strains or announce new variants to avoid what they perceive as negative publicity or the risk of being blamed for creating a variant.
The new system does not change the alphanumeric nomenclature systems used by researchers. It also does not prevent naming a place where a virus variant has been identified, for example to indicate areas where variants spread. What it does do is provide an alternative to names that mean little to people outside of research.
On Nature, we will for the time being use both the Greek letters and the nomenclature that researchers use, depending on the context, and will continue to avoid labeling variants according to their geographical origin.
NatureNews teams surveyed readers about whether they would use the new system. Most of the 1,362 respondents indicated that they would – depending on the context. However, about 15% said they would continue to use geographic descriptions. And more than a week after the WHO announcement, some media organizations and prominent people continue to identify variants by geographical place names. It must end. The letters of the Greek alphabet are familiar to international media and politicians.
The authors of the WHO system will be aware that theirs is a temporary solution. The WHO has already used 10 of its 24 letters to describe 6 interesting variants and 4 variants of concern that have been identified since December 2020. This means that a new naming system may need to be found.
Developing a naming system that is clear, understandable and can work across cultures and languages is a complex process – which is one of the reasons why it has taken so long for WHO advisers to come up with its current solution. . The World Meteorological Organization faces a similar problem. It has a rotating list of 21 names for storms, such as Dolly and Omar. It also has a backup list of all 24 Greek letters that it uses when the names in its default list expire. But in March, it announced it was withdrawing Greek letters from the reserve list and adopting a new system of AZ names, including Aidan and Zoe. The reason, it says, is that Greek letters can cause confusion when translated into other languages, and that some letters – such as eta and theta – sound similar and may be confused with each other.
WHO advisers should continue to work on the next iteration so that it is ready to be deployed when needed, and they should consider alphabets from other languages. Their current solution, although not perfect, is a simple, straightforward alternative to variants that are otherwise named after places. It will reduce the use of geographical origin by default when referring to variants, thus avoiding an unintentional stigma.