The Sars-Cov-2 variant first found in the UK will now be known as Alpha and the one sampled in India as Delta, according to a new nomenclature released by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday in an attempt to remove regional associations that experts have warned could lead to stigmatisation.
The naming convention follows the Greek alphabet and the labelling is based on when these variants were designated as being of concern or under investigation.
“They will not replace existing scientific names, but are aimed to help in public discussion of VOI/VOC,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, Covid-19 technical lead, WHO, in a tweet on Monday.
Till now, these have most commonly been known by what is called the Pango lineage code: the one linked to the UK is called B.1.1.7 and the one linked to India is known as B.1.617.2. In common use, however, they have also been sometimes referred to the UK variant or the Indian variant, a practice that experts and officials have discouraged.
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In a statement on May 12, the Union health ministry pointed out that the World Health Organization did not refer to the variant first found in the country as “Indian”, a day after WHO labelled it as a variant of concern. Later, on May 26, the Union government asked social media companies to scrub the words “Indian variant” from their services. In an advisory issued in 2015, the WHO cautioned against naming new infectious diseases in a manner that leads to negative effects on nations, economies and people.
“In recent years, several new human infectious diseases have emerged. The use of names such as ‘swine flu’ and ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome’ has had unintended negative impacts… This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods,” the then assistant director-general for health security at WHO said.
The variants B.1.351 (first sequenced in South Africa) and P.1 (first detected in Brazil) will be known as Beta and Gamma.
At present, these four are the only variants of concern – the mutations seen in them appear to make the coronavirus more infective or more resistant to immunity triggered by a past infection or a vaccine. B.1.617.2, or the Delta variant, has shown signs of being more infective as well as more resistant.It is seen to have, at least partly, led to India’s devastating second wave of cases that began in the spring, and has now raised alarm in the UK, there government scientists see the early stages of a third wave of infections building in the country. Ravi Gupta of the University of Cambridge, who is a member of the UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said although new cases were “relatively low” the B.1.617 variant had fuelled “exponential growth”, BBC reported.
According to data on the global repository GISAID, the B.1.1.7 has spread the most around the world, found in over 700,000 samples sequenced across 137 countries since December. But B.1.617.2 is believed to now be spreading the quickest, spreading to over 50 countries in at least 9,320 samples over the past two months. Six more variants, at present under investigation, are also likely to be labelled under the new nomenclature. The first of these VUIs is the one found initially in US, California and has been known as B.1.427/B.1.429. This will be known as Epsilon. The latest of the VUIs included in the new naming conventions is the B.1.617.1 variant, which will be known as Kappa.