June 23, 2021

You've heard of the 'alpha' and 'delta' variants. But what about 'Focanuba' and 'quail'?

Daily Briefing

In December 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) established a task force of "several dozen virologists, microbiologists, and taxonomists from around the world" to tackle the "near-impossible job" of naming the coronavirus variants, Drew Hinshaw and Gabriele Steinhauser write for the Wall Street Journal.

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Background

According to the Journal, government officials have long struggled with how to name new diseases found in their region or country.

Traditionally, diseases have been named after the location, region, or country where they were first identified—an "ignominious reward" for "doing the legwork of identifying virus strains circulating in their populations." For instance, Ebola was named after a river local to where the disease was first found, Lyme disease was similarly named after a town, and the Spanish Flu, according to virologists, "almost certainly came from the U.S." This trend can lead to travel bans, trade restrictions, and other consequences.

A 'near-impossible job'

In December 2020, to combat a growing trend of people using the country where various variants were found as a means of identifying the variants, WHO convened a task force to identify simple, inoffensive names for the growing numbers of variants. But the task was unexpectedly difficult, the Journal reports.  

For instance, the committee considered naming the variants after "sing-songy North American birds," such as the robin or quail, the Journal reports, before ultimately rejecting that idea after a swell of pushback. One commenter said it would be "almost inevitable that some will mistakenly think the birds carry or are responsible for Covid, putting robins and pelicans at risk the world over," while another pointed out that if the word "Robin" is adopted, any human who has the name will be negatively affected. Moreover, using the bird names would require a certain level of English fluency.

Similarly, the task force considered and rejected naming the variants after:

  • Greek gods, such as Apollo and Zeus, citing trademark concerns and worries that the Greek myths are often violent;
  • Common names, such as Andrew or Katrina, because doing so went against WHO's "Best practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Disease";
  • A simplified numerical system in which the first variant would be V1, then V2, etc., because V2 was "the name of a German rocket used during World War II";
  • A similar numerical system of "variants of concern," such as VOC1 and VOC2, because that "sounded too much like a common swear word";
  • Make-believe nouns, such as Alcanopa or Focanuba, because—as one panelist, Mark Pallen, a professor of microbial genomics at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, put it—"it all sounded a bit like alien names in a science-fiction universe."

The debate was so heated that a senior WHO official twice gave the panel a 24-hour deadline to make a decision—only to have the panel "blow past" the deadline both times, the Journal reports. "It was basically all these esteemed scientists telling each other their ideas were stupid," Jinal Bhiman, a principal medical scientist at South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said.

'Were all these meetings just for this?'

Finally, in May, the panel agreed to use a system based on the Greek alphabet to name the various variants. For instance, the variant first found in the United Kingdom would now be referred to as alpha, while the one first identified in South Africa would be beta, and so on.

But the decision was not without setbacks, the Journal reports. For example, one Greek national asked WHO's media department why they hadn't instead used the Roman alphabet.

Moreover, according to the Journal, the Greek alphabet has just 24 letters—which means that the panel is taking a "gamble" that the pandemic will be over by the time any potential omega variant is identified. It's such a gamble, in fact, that Pallen estimates the panel has spent six months identifying a system that will last only six months itself, prompting him to say, "Hang on, were all these meetings just for this?"

In addition, other organizations—including the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which advises WHO—have stopped using Greek letters as names in part because so many of the letters sound similar, such as "zeta," "theta," and "eta." "It led to messaging challenges," Clare Nullis, a WMO media officer, said.

But for now, WHO is "very pleased" with the decision, a spokesperson said. "We expect that people will continue to adopt them as they are simple, easy to say and remember," the spokesperson said (Hinshaw/Steinhauser, Wall Street Journal, 6/13).

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