June 3, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich
From stigma to sigma? The covid variant naming conundrum continues
On 31 May the World Health Organisation tweeted: “Today WHO has announced a new naming system for key #COVID19 variants. The labels are based on the Greek alphabet (i.e. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc), making them simple, easy to say and remember.” In her retweet of that tweet Alice Roberts said “…delta, epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda, mu, nu, xi, omicron, pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon, phi, chi, psi and omega’s twenty four. (I hope @officialnhaynes is impressed!)” (She was; I was). And if you want to sing a Greek alphabet song, here it is!
The next morning on the phone my 93-year-old father told me about the WHO announcement and said “Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta” and then we both stopped for a think and said epsilon and that was it, oh, and of course, omega…. But we discussed the whole scheme and wondered what would happen when they run out of letters (as one Tweeter said: “Delta, Delta.1, Delta.1.1, Delta.1.1.1 — wait”). We also wondered whether anybody would really use this nomenclature in public and how.
A naming conundrum
What am I talking about? In popular parlance new variants of the covid virus have been labelled according to where they were first sequenced, as for example the Kent or English or British virus – now Alpha! In a previous blog post I have charted scientists’ efforts to avoid such labelling, as it might lead to stigmatisation of certain countries or groups of people, xenophophia and anti-immigrant sentiments. As a consequence this might also lead to hiding outbreaks based on new variants.
Scientists, including those working at the WHO, therefore wanted to find an alternative naming system that avoided stigma. That’s in principle a good thing. In practice, finding something that works seems to be really difficult. Apparently, experts discussed various possibilities, such as Greek gods, fictional names etc, until settling on the Greek letter system. They could not use the Latin alphabet, as that is already used in the scientific terminology, e.g. what now is Alpha, is still B.1.1.7 and so on.
As things stand at the moment: “Under the new system, the variants of concern take on the following names: the hitherto so-called British variant B.1.1.7 becomes Alpha; the B.1.351 first discovered in South Africa becomes Beta, while the Brazilian P.1 becomes Gamma. The so-called Indian variant B.1.617 is split into sub-lineages, of which the B.1.617.2 variant of concern becomes Delta. The B.1.617.1 variant of interest is called Kappa.” (And in this article by Jonathan Corum and for The New York Times you’ll find more information – tweeted out by Zimmer under the banner: “The @nytimes coronavirus variant tracker—now in Greek!”)
Like many other naming systems discussed in my previous post, this system too has problems! First of all, it just sounds a bit hoity-toity, doesn’t it? The saying ‘It’s all Greek to me!’ comes readily to mind. Imagine saying in an interview: “The new omicron variant is spreading in xyz country, region etc”?
I wondered what would happened with these terms when used ‘in the wild’. My first encounter with such a use came on Tuesday, 1 June! I was listening to BBC radio 4’s 5pm news programme hosted by Evan Davis. He interviewed Oliver Johnson, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Bristol, who used the phrase ‘the Delta variant’ (10.39 in). When wrapping up, Davis helpfully told the audience that that was the Indian variant and people should think D for Delhi (11.48 in). As it was the explicit wish of the WHO to avoid stigmatisation, this was perhaps not quite the right thing to do. I am waiting to find other uses of the new system in the wild….If you find any, let me know!
However, coming back to my father (my one-man focus group – but perhaps that’s more than the WHO had) – he had asked: but how do I know which countries are ‘safe’ to go to? I tried to say that the ‘Indian’ variant had also been found in the US, independently of travel, but still, it’s a good question, and one also satirised in a Have I Got News For You tweet which shows Matt Hancock at the Downing Street lectern, surrounded by flags, saying: “People arriving from Omicron and Zeta countries must quarantine for up to 5 and 10 days respectively. People can travel to Upsilon and Gamma hotspots as long as they’ve received the Pfizer vaccine which is only 63% effective against Kappa and Mu.”
But ridicule aside, there are some deeper problems associated with this new system. These are discussed in some detail in a thread by Duncan Robertson, Policy & Strategy Analytics academic at Loughborough University, which is well worth a read. First of all, these recommendations come rather late, at a time when the country of origin labelling is already well entrenched in ordinary language; then it’s not future proof, see my earlier comment on running out of letters. And another question is how fast/slow will the WHO be in adding variants to the list before they become attached to a country/region of origin name, such as ‘the Yorkshire variant’, and who decides about it?
So, while the WHO’s intention at destigmatising names for covid variants is laudable, the implementation of any new scheme, such as naming them after the letters of the Greek alphabet, comes with problems. So far nobody has come up with a better idea though.
The title for this blog was inspired by yet another tweet. Emma Farge had written in a Reuters article: “Coronavirus variants with clunky, alphanumeric names have now been assigned the letters of the Greek alphabet to simplify discussion and pronunciation while avoiding stigma.” Kit Yates, a mathematical biologist, then tweeted: “I misread the end of this paragraph about renaming covid variants with Greek letters as ‘while avoiding sigma.’ I thought, ‘damn right’, if it gets to sigma we really are in trouble”.