It’s all Greek to me

The World Health Organization has stopped naming variants of Covid-19 after the countries where they were first identified, and in future will adopt the letters of the Greek alphabet to classify these variants instead.

The WHO has provided two reasons for the change: firstly, it believes it will ensure those countries that identify new variants of the virus are not “stigmatised”. Secondly, it hopes the new naming methodology will help the “average person” talk about Covid’s variants.

Hmm.

On the face of it, it might seem unfair to name newly discovered variants after the countries where they were first identified. Some countries are simply better placed to identify the variants than others; it need not mean the disease is any more prevalent there. The UK undertakes more of the sequencing tests necessary to identify variants than other countries, for example. So a UK variant was not unsurprising.

But what the WHO seems to have forgotten in its efforts to avoid possible offence is that both the international community and “average person” alike do not hold these same countries to blame over the emergence of new variants. People may blame their governments for incoherent lockdown measures, poor preparation for a pandemic and political posturing over vaccination. But do they attack them for successful genetic sequencing programmes? Not to my knowledge they don’t.

Extreme screen-licking morons on Twitter aside, even the most poorly upholstered of armchair epidemiologists understands that a process as complex as viral mutation doesn’t occur because the temperate South African climate encourages genetic transformation. Most of us recognise that the virus doesn’t prefer Indian cuisine over ‘if-you-could-only-eat-one-food-for-the-rest-of–your-life’ Italian. In our hearts we know there is no reason why Kent should offer a more hospitable environment for the mutation of SARS-CoV 2’s spike protein than Surrey, the county to its immediate west.

No-one blames the Katrinas of the world for the hurricane that devastated New Orleans. Hell, there’s enough blame going around already — much of it justified — so even a country as well versed at apportioning blame as Britain doesn’t currently have spare capacity for more.

That said, did the WHO ask for Greece’s take on things before it landed on its alphabet to name variants of Covid-19? The country’s handling of the pandemic was described as recently as February as “exemplary.” Of all the alphabets in all the world, what did Greece do to have its singled out? Talk about stigmatising a country.

Then again, the word ‘stigma’ has its origins in Greek, being derived from stigmatos, meaning the “mark of a pointed instrument.” Much like a Covid-19 vaccine jab, then. You can join the dots with crayons and put that one on your placards, covid sceptics.

The WHO’s second reason for changing variant classification makes more sense. Anything that makes conversation around the subject a little easier is helpful, given that ‘Alpha Variant’ trips off the tongue a little easier than B.1.1.7, GR/501Y.V1 or 20I/S:501Y.V1, as those in the trade better know the UK variant, or as I prefer to call it, the Virus-Formerly-Known-As-Vince. I fear the WHO overestimates the quality of conversation in the UK’s newly opened pubs, though, if it thinks that the Greek alphabet is widely known by the masses and will make for better banter.

On a practical level, as no less an authority than the UK’s Daily Express has already pointed out, the Greek alphabet only runs to 24 letters. As there are already four Variants of Concern (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta) and six Variants of Interest (Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa), there is but room for another 14 variants under this particular system of classification before another will have to be introduced.

I appreciate there is a lot of sensitivity around the origins of Covid-19. But whether it arrived on the wing of a bat, or was bagged and dumped in the bins behind the Wuhan Institute of Virology by ignorant cleaners, at least a system based on modern Chinese’s 100,000 characters would have provided the necessary headroom for the discovery of 25 variants, or more. I concede this may be a little controversial given the source of the pandemic, however.

So if the WHO really wants to avoid stigmatising those countries identifying new variants while at the same time making the subject more approachable, understandable and relatable for the average person, how about each variant is named following a public poll? The UK has form here and would, I’m sure, advise the WHO on how to go about this. What could go possibly wrong?

There must be hundreds of derivatives of SpikeyMcSpikeface, and each would make for epic pub bantz.

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James Tate

James Tate

27 Followers

A pick and mix of words; now online, better packaged and more expensive, like everything post-COVID. The sour cherries are best. The opinions are my own.