WHO gives new names to COVID-19 variants of concern

The World Health Organization revealed new names on Monday for the COVID-19 variants of concern which goes by multiple, sometimes cumbersome names.

World Health Organization now using letters of Greek alphabet to identify them

Health-care workers provide COVID-19 swabs at their drive-thru clinic in Central Park in Burnaby, B.C., on March 26. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The World Health Organization revealed new names on Monday for COVID-19 variants of concern which have to date been known by multiple names and numbers. 

As such, the four variants considered of concern by the UN agency — and known generally by the public as the variants first identified in the U.K., South Africa, Brazil and India, and by sometimes clunky, technical names such as B117 or B1617 — will now be given the letters alpha, beta, gamma and delta according to the order of their detection.

Others will continue down the alphabet. Here is a look at what prompted the move, and the variants that now have new names: 

Why the Greek alphabet?

The choice of the Greek alphabet came after months of deliberations in which other possibilities — such as Greek gods and invented, pseudo-classical names — were considered by experts, according to bacteriologist Mark Pallen who was involved in the talks.

Historically, viruses have often been associated with the locations from which they are thought to have emerged, such as Ebola which is named after the Congolese river.

The World Health Organization has assigned new names for the COVID-19 variants of concern, using the Greek alphabet. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

But this can damage the reputations of those places and is often inaccurate, such as with the so-called "Spanish flu" pandemic of 1918 the origins of which are unknown.

"No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants," said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove.

The executive director of the Canadian COVID Genomics Network agrees. "I think that's totally wrong and I think we should avoid that," said Catalina Lopez-Correa. She agrees the numbers are confusing — even at times for the scientists working with them. 

"We do need some international guidance to ensure we all agree on a way to name those variants," she said.

Here is the breakdown of the variants of concern identified so far, based on where the variation was first detected:

The U.K. — Alpha

The variant first identified in the United Kingdom in September 2020 was first confirmed in Canada in December 2020. It has been known as the B117 variant. It has now been designated as Alpha.

It is by far the most common variant in Canada, with nearly 193,000 confirmed cases according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). 

South Africa — Beta

The variant first identified in South Africa, B1351, will now be known as Beta. It was first detected in Canada in Alberta in January. It is not very common here, with fewer than 1,700 confirmed cases. 

Brazil — Gamma

The P1 variant first emerged in December 2020. The first confirmed case in Canada was detected in Toronto in February

It has also spread more widely here, with nearly 12,000 cases now confirmed. 

India — Delta

The fourth variant of concern which has been given a Greek alphabet moniker is B1617, which was first detected in India in October 2020. It was first confirmed in Canada in April in a patient in Quebec

This variant is the least understood, according to PHAC. The agency says its impact is still being assessed in Canada, though it has now been identified in all 10 provinces and one territory. 

With files from CBC News

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