When all Greek letters are used up to name COVID-19 variants, the World Health Organization (WHO) might start naming them after star constellations.
American epidemiologist and WHO's COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove shared that the global health body is already considering possibilities for naming upcoming variants of the highly contagious disease. The announcement came after rising concern and interest in the continuous development of new COVID-19 variants.
"We will possibly run out of the Greek alphabet, but we're already looking at the next series of names," Dr. Van Kekhove told The Daily Telegraph in an interview, Sunday, August 8. She added that the WHO currently considers star constellations after Greek alphabets. "We were going to go with Greek gods or goddesses, and I said please, please don't make me say that publicly," she quipped.
How Are COVID-19 Variants Named?
At the end of May 2021, the WHO released an official statement about the "simple, easy to say and remember" names for key COVID-19 variants - a system that used Greek alphabets. The United Nations agency said that the decision came after consulting experts and reviewing various naming systems, even convening a panel of experts worldwide. The group reportedly included experts who are part of existing nomenclature groups, virus taxonomy, researchers, and national figures.
The currently used nomenclature for COVID-19 variants that uses Greek letters were not intended to replace the scientific names of each identified strain, which are challenging to say or remember, and are prone to misreporting for the public. Scientific names, including those assigned by scientific initiative GISAID; open-source project Nextstrain; and the naming system known as the Pango nomenclature, remain in use among research papers, as well as other academic and official correspondences.
More importantly, the naming system that uses Greek letters for COVID-19 variants gives a unified nomenclature without resorting to location-based naming, which WHO calls "stigmatizing and discriminatory." Historically, diseases have been informally named after the location from which they were first reported: the Ebola virus from the Ebola River in Congo, the Spanish flu of 1918, the German measles, and more.
The Future in the Face of Evolving COVID-19 Variants
Until now, COVID-19 continues to spawn new variants, which are slightly mutated forms of the virus as its form of adaptation to varying environments and conditions. In the face of this constantly changing virus, Dr. Van Kerkhove reminded the public that new mutations with the potential to render existing vaccines ineffective are real threats. These are the variants that might be named after star constellations soon.
The delta variant remains the primary concern of global health agencies and the dominant strain first detected in India. The WHO confirms in a separate report that the latest 'variant of concern' has been detected in at least 130 countries. The agency also warns that the variant continues to evolve and mutate.
Also, another strain, the so-called Lambda variant, is currently being monitored by the WHO. According to NPR, the new strain was first discovered in Peru last December 2020 and was considered a 'variant of interest' last June.
Check out more news and information on COVID-19 Variants in Science Times.