Naming Covid variants after places can lead to stigma – WHO

Emily Withers and Ella Pickover, PA
·3-min read

New and emerging variants of Covid-19 should not be named after where they are first identified to avoid “stigmatising” a country or place, health leaders have said.

Experts working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) are developing new names for variants – which are often colloquially named after the places where they are first detected.

Many variants of Sars-CoV-2 – the virus which causes Covid-19 – have been identified around the world.

This includes the B.1.1.7 variant – which is known in the UK as the “Kent variant” and around the world as the “UK variant”.

But the WHO said it is important that countries are conducting surveillance of the virus and genomic sequencing to discover new variants without fear of stigmatisation for doing so.

The WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, said that the body was working on a nomenclature – the devising or choosing of names for things – for virus variants.

“We continue to see people named the variants ‘country X variant’ or ‘country Y variant’, and we have been working hard on developing a nomenclature, with a large group of scientists around the world,” she told a press briefing.

“We hope to be able to announce the nomenclature very soon, because we need to make sure that any of the names that are used do not further stigmatise a person, or a last name, or a location inadvertently, and so we’re still working on that.

“But we do hope that countries and scientists do not say ‘the South African variant’.”

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She added: “The more you look, the more you will find, and with the increases in genomic sequencing that are happening worldwide, there are a lot of regional platforms that are being enhanced to make sure that we can find different mutations and different virus variants.

“There are a lot of research groups that are out there that are studying each of these mutations, and the combinations of mutations, to determine if there are any changes in transmissibility and severity, and any potential impact on our available and future diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.

“So it is really important that we do have names of these virus variants.

“Right now what we’re using is: the B.1.1.7 – the virus variant first identified in the United Kingdom; the B.1.351 – the virus variant that was first identified in South Africa; and the P1, which is the virus variant that was first detected in Japan, but is circulating in Brazil.

“But there should be no stigma associated with these viruses being detected. And unfortunately we still see that happening.

“Countries that are conducting surveillance that are carrying out sequencing, that are sharing those sequences on publicly available platforms, that are working with WHO and scientists around the world, should not be stigmatised for sharing this information.

“In fact, we need more of this to be happening worldwide, and we will continue to work with partners to ensure that that that happens.”