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WHO rebrands ‘stigmatizing and discriminatory’ coronavirus variants

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The World Health Organization (WHO) is renaming SARS-CoV-2 variants with “easy-to-pronounce and non-stigmatizing” letters of the Greek alphabet rather than referring to them by the country of origination which they say is discriminatory.

“While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall and are prone to misreporting,” the agency claimed. “As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory. To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets, and others to adopt these new labels.”

The U.K. variant, B.1.1.7, will now be called “Alpha.” The South African variant, B.1.351, is now branded as “Beta.” The Brazilian variant, P.1, will be known as “Gamma.” And the variant found in India, B.1.617.2, will now be referred to as “Delta.” The new, more virulent Vietnam variant has yet to be named.

“These labels do not replace existing scientific names (e.g. those assigned by GISAID, Nextstrain, and Pango), which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research,” the WHO added.

(Video Credit: NBC News)

The move appears to be a reaction from researchers at the University of California in San Francisco who alleged in May that former President Trump’s tweets about the “Chinese virus” are directly linked to anti-Asian language on Twitter.

Former President Trump referred to the virus as the “China virus” or the “Wuhan virus.” He stated he used the terms “to be accurate” and claimed they were “not racist at all.” His point was that is where the virus originated from.

NPR is now allegedly claiming that the “rhetoric” is now responsible for Asian hate crimes across the country: “More than a year later, much of that rhetoric has given way to violence. Last month, the group Stop AAPI released a report documenting 6,603 hate incidents between March 2020 and March 2021. Physical assaults rose from 10% of total hate incidents in 2020 to almost 17% in 2021, according to the report.”

Sensitivity in India to the stigmatization surrounding the variant there prompted the government in April to request that social media companies remove references to the “India variant” from their platforms. The country’s government told Reuters that they wanted to sent out a “loud and clear” message that mentioning the term fuels “miscommunication.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, who is the WHO’s technical lead for the COVID-19 response, declared on Twitter: “No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants.”

The new naming system will apply to two separate classifications of variants: “variants of concern,” which are considered the most potentially dangerous, and second-level less-lethal “variants of interest.”

“It would have been good to have thought about this nomenclature early,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, who is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, commented to CNN on Monday. He believes it will be difficult to persuade people to start using the Greek alphabet names.

“There’s definitely issues with stigmatization where the variants are being described and then labeling them based on that country. We know that there’s already backlash in India, regarding the Indian variant and people mentioning it that way,” Adalja remarked. “So, I understand why it’s happening. I think it’s just a lot for people to think about this far down the line.”

The Greek alphabet contains 24 letters. The WHO has currently assigned 10 of the letter designations: four letters to variants of concern and six letters to variants of interest.

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