Coronavirus variants have been renamed with letters of the Greek alphabet following criticism of the way they have been labelled up until now.
Under a new system revealed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Kent variant will now be known as Alpha, the Indian variant as Delta, and the South African variant as Beta.
Their scientific names – B.1.1.7, B.1.617.2 and B.1.351 – had been considered too complicated to remember, but there were also concerns about referring to them by the locations where they were discovered.
#COVID19 does not care who we are, where we live, or what we believe.
Yet the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering.
That’s why I’m appealing for an all-out effort to end hate speech globally. pic.twitter.com/ojh957xhQq
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) May 8, 2020
Critics have warned this can stigmatise countries where variants are first found and some have warned the rise in coverage of the so-called Indian variant as it becomes more widespread could fuel racism against Indian people.
Human Rights Watch said that “political parties and groups… have latched onto the COVID-19 crisis to advance anti-immigrant, white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, antisemitic, and xenophobic conspiracy theories that demonize refugees, foreigners, prominent individuals, and political leaders”.
Last year, the fact the pandemic originated from China led to an increase in hate crimes against Asian people, and former US president Donald Trump was condemned for regularly referring to coronavirus as the “China virus“, among other such labels.
The UK’s East and Southeast Asian communities saw a 300% increase in hate crimes during the pandemic, according to advocacy group End the Virus of Racism.
As a result, the WHO has sought to rename the new variants using a different system.
These are the new names for each of the variants:
• Kent / B.1.1.7 – Alpha
• South Africa / B.1.351 – Beta
• Brazil / P.1 – Gamma
• India / B.1.617.2 – Delta
• US / B.1.427 / B.1.429 – Epsilon
• Brazil / P.2 – Zeta
• B.1.525 – Eta
• Philippines / P.3 – Theta
• US / B.1.526 – Iota
• India / B.1.617.1 – Kappa
The choice of the Greek Alphabet followed months of deliberations, with ideas such as Greek gods and pseudo-classical names floated by experts.
However, many were already the names of brands, companies or aliens.
Viruses have historically been named after the locations where they were first discovered.
For example, the Ebola virus was named after the Congolese river.
But this labelling can be damaging and at times inaccurate, with the “Spanish flu” pandemic retaining its name despite its origins being unknown.
“No country should be stigmatised for detecting and reporting variants,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove.