WHO introduces new system to simply name coronavirus variants

A billboard in Britain warning against a COVID-19 variant.
(Image credit: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

The World Health Organization on Monday said it has come up with a new system for naming coronavirus variants, in an attempt to make it easier for the public to discuss the variants while also not stigmatizing countries.

While scientists will still refer to variants using numbers and letters — for example, the variant believed to have first emerged in the United Kingdom is called B.1.1.7 — the WHO will name them using the letters of the Greek alphabet. B.1.1.7 is now Alpha, for example, and B.1.617.2, the newest coronavirus variant first identified in India, is Delta.

In March, the World Meteorological Organization said it will no longer use Greek letters to name hurricanes, so there won't be any confusion between variants and extreme weather events.

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The WHO wanted to change the system to make it easier for the public to refer to the variants, while also making sure countries weren't maligned — just because a variant is first identified in one region, it doesn't mean that's where it actually emerged from, The New York Times notes. There was talk of forming new words for the variants, but too many that were suggested ended up being very close to real business and place names.

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