British and Indian Variants Renamed 'Alpha' and 'Delta' Under New WHO Covid-19 Guidance

A pedestrian walks past a sign directing members of the public to a covid-19 testing center in Bolton, England, on May 28, 2021.
A pedestrian walks past a sign directing members of the public to a covid-19 testing center in Bolton, England, on May 28, 2021.
Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP (Getty Images)

The so-called British and Indian variants of covid-19 have gotten name changes under new guidance released by the World Health Organization on Monday. The British variant will now be called “Alpha” and the mutant variant first identified in India will be called “Delta” as the WHO tries to stop stigmatization of regions that were the first to sequence those new variants of coronavirus.

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The new naming system uses the Greek alphabet, for the WHO’s Variants of Interest (less serious) and Variants of Concern (more alarming). The variants are given names in the order they’re first identified by the group.

The Indian variant, known by scientists as B.1.617.2, has been dubbed the Delta variant. The so-called South African variant, known by scientists as B.1.351, is now called the Gamma variant.

The British variant, identified as B.1.1.7 by scientists, is now called the Alpha variant. Interestingly, the British actually refer to their variant as the “Kent” variant after the place in the UK where it was found, which explains just how arbitrary these names can be.

The long series of numbers and letters will still be used by scientists, but there were concerns about the regional names and the incentives in place when terms like “British variant” are used.

As the New York Times explains:

Scientists worry that those informal nicknames can be both inaccurate and stigmatizing, punishing countries for investing in the genome sequencing necessary to sound an alarm about new mutations that may well have emerged somewhere else.

Whether the Greek letters will stick is another matter. It has been months since experts convened by the W.H.O. began discussing the issue, allowing labels like “the British variant” and “the South African variant” to proliferate in the news media.

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None of this style of reshuffling is new, even when it comes to covid-19. If you remember early 2020, the disease went by a bunch of different names, both formally and informally, including the “novel coronavirus,” 2019-nCoV, the Wuhan Virus, and SARS-CoV-2. It was eventually given the most widely used name, covid-19, in mid-February of 2020.

Names like the Wuhan Virus, while initially used in media reports in an innocuous manner, were later weaponized by far-right figures such as former U.S. president Donald Trump to turn the disease into a racist weapon of the New Cold War.

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Matt Novak is a senior writer at Gizmodo and founder of Paleofuture.com. He's writing a book about the movies U.S. presidents watched at the White House, Camp David, and on Air Force One.

DISCUSSION

fredipusrex
FredipusRex

Which shows you exactly how much they really cared about “stigmatization” of using place names. The “Alpha” variant has been called “the British variant” since November/December 2020 and it’s now June of 2021. The “Gamma” or “South African variant” has been called that just as long. And remember the “Brazil variant”?

While the WHO has had a policy for not using place names for a while, no one ever followed it - certainly not the media or the general common use. Meanwhile, there was a hugely successful switch from “Wuhan coronavirus” in April 2020 to COVID-19 that happened almost literally overnight as soon as China demanded it.

I don’t much care what they get called (I preferred the COVID-19 or SAR-COV-2 names for specificity), let’s not fool ourselves as to why it suddenly became critical to change the name. It was not because of Trump (although, yes, he was uniquely awful) - it was because China didn’t like the PR hit it was taking and made a point of showing its muscle. Once other place names took hold, suddenly no one much cared about stigmatization any more. It took less than a month from the time that “Wuhan flu” became something the media really cared about (March 2020) to the time of the name change (April 2020) and it was about as coordinated as newspeak gets. The other named variants have been out there six times as long and crickets (except for some right-leaning media pointing at hypocrisy).

If stigmatizing a country or people was the real reason, British, Indian, Brazilian, South African variants (almost all of which have been presented as maximally threatening) would never have taken hold. But they did - and the media didn’t give one whit about it.