WHO Greek alphabet naming system for Covid explained

Omicron variant: Scientist warns how infectious strain may be

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) made the decision several months ago to name strains of Covid after letters from the Greek alphabet. For example, we currently have the Alpha, Beta and most recently Omicron variants of Covid. Nonetheless, why did the WHO decide to name strains using letters from one of the world’s oldest alphabets?

On May 31 the WHO announced a new system that would be used to identify different variants of Covid.

This system they settled on was to name each individual strain after a letter from the Greek alphabet.

The Greek alphabet was selected after wide consultation and a review of many potential naming systems.

To complete this process the WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world.

This included experts who were already part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities.

One of the reasons the system was introduced was so the wider public, outside of the scientific community, could identify variants more easily.

Existing scientific names for variants – such as B.1.1.7 (Alpha variant) – were deemed to be difficult to recall and prone to misreporting.

As a consequence of these factors the WHO found people began to name variants after the places they were first detected, which they viewed as discriminatory and stigmatising.

Their hope was that by introducing a clear and recognised naming system that it would help to improve global communication and limit misreporting.

Only Variants of Interest or Variants of Concern are labelled by the WHO’s system, such as the Beta variant which was first identified in South Africa.

The system has been in use as recently as this week with the emergence of the Omicron variant – initially named B.1.1.529.

South Africa again became the first country to report a case to the WHO on Wednesday.

Since then it has been identified in six other countries around the world.

These being Botswana, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Israel and Hong Kong.

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Early evidence of infection from the variant suggests that it contains many mutations and that there is a higher risk of reinfection.

The emergence of the new strain has led to many countries imposing travel bans or restrictions on people travelling from nations in southern Africa.

For example, the UK announced, on Thursday, that people travelling from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini would not be able to enter the country unless they are UK or Irish nationals, or UK residents.

Other countries including the US, Australia, India and France have also already announced similar restrictions.

The WHO has said that the number of cases of the Omicron variant appeared to be growing across all of South Africa’s provinces.

In a statement, the UN public health body said: “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning.”

WHO officials say it will take several weeks before they can understand how transmissible the new variant is.

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