‘Kappa’ and ‘Delta’: WHO names COVID-19 variants first found in India

The global health agency has named various variants of COVID-19 using Greek alphabets to simplify the public discussion as well as to help in removing the stigma from the names.

Naming of COVID-19 strains
Naming of COVID-19 strains

The B.1.617.1 and B.1.617.2 COVID-19 variants that were first identified in India, have been named as ‘Kappa’ and ‘Delta’ respectively by the World Health Organisation.

The global health agency has named various variants of COVID-19 using Greek alphabets to simplify the public discussion as well as to help in removing the stigma from the names.

The announcement by the WHO came on May 31, 2021, nearly three weeks after India objected to B.1.617 mutant of the Coronavirus being termed as an ‘Indian variant’ in media reports. The Union Health Ministry of India pointed that the UN’s top health body has not used the word ‘Indian’ for this strain in its document.

WHO’s technical COVID-19 lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove mentioned on Twitter that WHO announces new, easy to say labels for SARS-CoV2 Variants of Concern (VOCs) & Interest (VOIs). They will not replace the existing scientific names but aims to help in public discussions of VOI/VOC.

Why WHO has decided to name COVID-19 variants?

The World Health Organisation, while announcing the new naming system ‘making them simple, easy to say and remember', stated that it is ‘stigmatizing and discriminatory’ to call the COVID-19 variants by names of the nations they were first detected in.

The new labels will not replace the existing scientific names, which convey significant scientific information and will continue to be used in research. The naming system aims to prevent calling the variants by the places where they are detected.

The new labels will also help with the public discussion about VOC/VOI as the numbering system can be difficult to follow.

WHO pointed that no country must be stigmatized for detecting and reporting the COVID-19 variants. There is a need for robust surveillance for the variants, incl epi, molecular, and sequencing to be carried out and shared.

The global health agency also encouraged nations and others to adopt these names as they will ease the public discussion about the global COVID-19 Variants of Concern and Interest.

What are the names given to different COVID-19 variants?

•  WHO has named B.1.617.1 COVID-19 variant as ‘Kappa’ while the B.1.617.2 variant has been dubbed as ‘Delta’. Both the variants were first found in India.

•  The B.1.1.7 COVID-19 strain which was first detected in the United Kingdom will be known as ‘Alpha’.

•  The B.1.351 variants detected in South Africa are now called ‘Beta’.

•  1 variant which was first found in Brazil is ‘Gamma’ and the P.2 variant is ‘Zeta’.

•  The COVID-19 strains that were found in the United States are ‘Epsilon’ and ‘Iota’.

Labels introduced to assist public discussion of variants:

The WHO, in order to assist with public discussion of variants, has convened a group of scientists from the WHO Virus Evolution Working Group, Nextstrain, representatives from GISAID, the WHO COVID-19 reference laboratory network, Pango, and additional experts in virological, microbial nomenclature, and communication from different countries and agencies to consider easy to pronounce and non-stigmatizing labels for VOCs and VOIs.

The WHO informed that at the present time, this group of experts convened by the UN health body has recommended labels using letters of the Greek Alphabet, i.e. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, which will be easier and much more practical to discuss by the non-scientific audiences.

WHO monitors changes to the virus:

The World Health Organisation and its international experts have been monitoring the changes in the virus.

The significant mutations of the virus are being identified and the WHO can inform the public and the countries about any changes needed to react to the variant and prevent its spread.

Systems have been established globally and are being strengthened to detect the signals of potential VOCs and VOIs and assess them on the basis of the risk posed to the global public health.

National authorities can choose to designate other variants of local interest and concern.

Controversy on the term ‘Indian Variant’: Background

On May 12, 2021, the Union Health Ministry of India had dismissed the media reports that used the term Indian Variant for the B.1.617 mutant strain of COVID-19, which the WHO had recently said was a ‘variant of global concern’.

The Ministry in an official statement had said that several media reports have covered the news of WHO classifying the B.1.617 as a variant of global concern. Some of the reports have termed the B.1.617 variant of COVID-19 as an Indian variant, these reports are without any basis and are unfounded.

COVID-19 in China:

The first COVID-19 case was reported by China in the Central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. Since then, the deadly virus has become a pandemic affecting countries all over the world.

China has also reacted angrily after the former President of the United States Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to the virus as the ‘China virus’.

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