Forget the Indian variant, it's Delta now: why WHO is using Greek letters to name COVID mutations

The World Health Organization announces a new naming system for variants of COVID-19 to avoid 'stigmatisation' after criticism from the Indian government

Learning the Greek alphabet through COVID variants: WHO ditches country names to identify virus mutations
Learning the Greek alphabet through COVID variants: WHO ditches country names to identify virus mutations

When COVID-19 hit more than a year ago scientists warned of possible mutations that could complicate the recovery from the pandemic.

The first such mutation that caused havoc was the UK variant, followed shortly by the South African and Brazilian variants. More recently, the Indian variant became a source of global concern.

But as COVID variants made it into common parlance, the World Health Organization (WHO) has now announced a new naming system for them using the Greek alphabet.

The organisation said the Greek letters would not replace existing scientific names, which use numerals and letters, but that they hoped it would help with the dialogue of ordinary people.

But why has WHO ditched names like the UK and Indian variant for Greek letters?

It started with the Indian government criticising the naming of variant B.1.617.2 as the 'Indian variant'. WHO never officially labelled it as such but scientists, public health officials and the media started identifying variants with their country of origin to make it easier for the general public to understand.

However, now, to avoid stigmatisation, WHO has released a list of Greek letters that will refer to both variants of concern and variants of interest. A full list of names has been published on the WHO website.

On Friday, Superintendence of Public Health Charmaine Gauci made a point to address the labelling of variants, echoing the WHO's sentiment that labelling variants with a country's name was discriminatory.

So, when the next time she refers to the Delta variant and its prevalence or otherwise in Malta, Gauci would be referring to the Indian variant and Alpha would be the UK mutation.

The WHO variant labelling system 

Earliest documented samples Lineage WHO label
Kent (UK) 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
Multiple countries B.1.525 Eta
Philippines P.3 Theta
US B.1.526 Lota
India B.1.617.1 Kappa