WHO Updates the Nomenclature of SARS-CoV-2 Variants
WHO Updates the Nomenclature of SARS-CoV-2 Variants

WHO Updates the Nomenclature of SARS-CoV-2 Variants

Rather than being described by the location of where they emerged or an alphanumeric code, variants will be given a Greek letter.

Lisa Winter
Jun 1, 2021

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The naming of variants of SARS-CoV-2 has been a bit slapdash. Different databases that share the sequences of the virus have different nomenclature norms. For instance, the variant that emerged in the United Kingdom is called B.1.1.7 on the Pango platform, but is called 20I/S:501Y.V1 on Nextstrain. Yesterday (May 31), the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that SARS-CoV-2 variants of interest (VOI) and variants of concern (VOC) will be named based on the Greek alphabet for purposes of public discourse.

As B.1.1.7 was the first VOC designated by WHO, it is called Alpha under the new naming system. B.1.351, which originated in Brazil, is now called Beta. The two other VOCs are P.1, the variant first identified in Brazil and now referred to as Gamma, and B.1.617.2 that originated in India, now called Delta. The six VOIs designated by WHO take up Epsilon through Kappa in the Greek alphabet. The full list will be maintained on WHO’s website.

“These [Greek] labels do not replace existing scientific names (e.g. those assigned by GISAID, Nextstrain and Pango), which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research,” WHO’s statement reads.     

According to WHO, the technical variant names are too confusing for the general public and so “people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

The new naming system comes long after the first variants were described. WHO officials say the decision came after a great deal of discussion on which naming convention would be best. Reuters reports that the group considered other possibilities including portmanteaus, fruits, or Greek deities. 

According to STAT, the group behind the decision was made up of many of the same people who are on the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses. Although the organization named SARS-CoV-2, variant nomenclature is beyond its official scope, and so the task was left to WHO. 

“I heard it’s sometimes quite a challenge to come to an agreement with regards to nomenclature,” Frank Konings, the leader of the working group, tells STAT. “This was a relatively straightforward discussion in getting to the point where everybody agreed.”