If you haven’t yet mastered the name of the latest coronavirus variant to set nations on edge — B.1.617.2, as evolutionary biologists call it — then fear not: The World Health Organization has proposed a solution.
The group said on Monday that it had devised a less technical, and more easily pronounceable, system for naming variants — the mutated versions of the virus that have driven new surges of infections around the world.
Variants will be assigned letters of the Greek alphabet in the order in which they are designated potential threats by the W.H.O.
B.1.617.2, for example, which has contributed to a deadly surge in India, has been named Delta under the new system. That variant may spread even more quickly than B.1.1.7, the variant discovered in Britain that has contributed to devastating waves of cases globally. (B.1.1.7’s new name is Alpha.)
Scientists will keep assigning long strings of letters and numbers to new variants for their own purposes, but they hope that Greek letters will roll off the tongues of nonscientists more easily.
There is also a deeper motivation: The letters-and-numbers system was so complicated that many people were referring to variants by the places they were discovered instead (“the Indian variant” for B.1.617.2, for example). 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.
The experts said they had considered a number of alternatives, like taking syllables from existing words to make new words. But too many of those syllable combinations were already recognizable names of places or businesses, they said.
And as it happens, the Greek letters had just been freed up from another task: The World Meteorological Organization said in March that it would no longer use them to name hurricanes.