How are COVID-19 variants named by WHO? – Explainer of the Day

Each variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus will be given a name from the Greek alphabet. Read how and why will the COVID-19 variants be named in Greek and what are new Greek names of COVID-19 variants.

Created On: Jun 1, 2021 13:24 ISTModified On: Jun 1, 2021 13:25 IST

The World Health Organization (WHO) on May 31, 2021, announced a new naming system for the COVID-19 variants of concern and variants of interest. Each variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus will be given a name from the Greek alphabet.

Why will the variants be named from Greek alphabet?

• The Greek alphabet naming system of the variants of COVID-19 will simplify the public discussion with labels and reduce the stigma around the origin country of new variants.

“No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead.

New Naming system of COVID-19 variants: Background

• Kherkhove further mentioned that the WHO’s Virus Evolution Working Group has been working for the past few months on a nomenclature system for the variants of coronavirus.

• WHO had drawn a group of scientists from the WHO’s Virus Evolution Working Group, WHO’s COVID-19 Reference Laboratory Network, representatives from GISDAID, Pango, Nextstrain (task force responsible for classifying evolutionary development of coronavirus), experts from microbial nomenclature, virological departments from various countries to come up with a naming system of variants of COVID-19.

• The Virus Evolution Working Group worked on several ideas such as creating two-syllable names, combining three syllables, four syllables, considering Greek gods and goddesses names, number variants one, two, three, and so on, but all these ideas were rejected.

• Kherkhove explained that the Greek alphabet nomenclature system currently adopted aims to help the average man discuss and understand the variants of coronavirus in an easier-to-use language.

What are the Greek names of COVID-19 variants?

• To date, WHO has identified four Variants of Concern (VOC) and six Variants of Interest (VOI) of coronavirus.

• The Greek names of the four variants of concern will be:

Variant Greek Name Country of origin
B.1.1.7 Alpha UK
B.1.617.2 Delta India
B.1.351 Beta South Africa
P1 Gamma Brazil


•The Greek names of the six variants of interest will be:

Variant Greek Name Country of origin
B.1.427/ B.1.429 Epsilon USA
P2 Zeta Brazil
B.1.525 Eta Multiple countries
P3 Theta Philippines
B.1.526 Iota USA
B.1.617.1 Kappa India

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