Why Are The Coronavirus Variants Called Alpha, Delta, And Omicron?


The WHO already issued in 2015 a directive of good practices to name new diseases and thus avoid “offending any group”.

Blaming other countries for diseases and viruses is a strategy to divert attention from the poor health management itself. This was the case with former US President Donald Trump, who referred to SARS-CoV-2 as the “China virus,” when he felt pressured by the increasing number of cases in his country, says Jerome Viala-Gaudefroy, assistant professor. from the CY Cergy University of Paris, which investigates the origin of the nomenclature of diseases.

The so-called Spanish flu, a devastating virus that killed millions of people after World War I, likely originated in the US but was linked to Spain, the country where it was first identified.

As Trump and his party in 2020 continued to label the coronavirus “Chinese flu” and pass on the baseless theory that it originated in a Wuhan laboratory, Asian Americans have increasingly come under attack.

Also in northern India, “Chinese-looking” locals living in the border areas with China were abused and forced to self-quarantine, even without having COVID-19 symptoms.

The World Health Organization (WHO) already issued a good practice directive in 2015 to name new diseases and thus avoid “offending any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic group”.

“Online expressions of racism and xenophobia related to COVID-19 have included harassment, hate speech, the proliferation of discriminatory stereotypes and conspiracy theories,” said E. Tendayi Achiume, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism, in March 2020.

“It is not surprising that the leaders, who try to attribute COVID-19 to certain national or ethnic groups, are the same nationalist populist leaders who have made racist and xenophobic rhetoric the central axis of their political platforms,” ​​he criticized.

New names for variants, old problems

When the coronavirus mutated, the variants were renamed after their putative places of origin, for example, the Indian variant.

The ethnicization of the names of these variants motivated the WHO in May 2021, almost 18 months after the appearance of the virus, to use Greek letters for the variants of SARS-CoV-2: the first, identified for the first time in the United Kingdom became alpha and the Indian variant, delta.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical chief and infectious disease epidemiologist, said that “no country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting COVID variants.”

However, after the Greek alphabet was used as a neutral tool for naming virus variants, problems arose again, as the Greek letter “xi” was considered very similar to the name of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which could rekindle the anti-Asian feeling.

The most recent variant, first detected in South Africa (B.1.1.529), was named “omicron”. However, the media referred to that strain of COVID-19 as the South African variant, reinforcing an association with Africa.

The Sunday edition of the German daily Rheinpfalz am Sonntag ran a headline on the front page: “Africa virus is with us,” about a photo with a black woman and a child. The newspaper apologized, but the damage had already been done.

Controversial origins and misinformation

As with the Spanish flu, the omicron variant most likely originated in a different place than where it was identified. On Tuesday, for example, it was reported that the Dutch health authorities had already discovered such a variant in local samples on November 19, that is, five days before scientists from South Africa announced that they had identified a new strain.

Ebola is another pandemic that was associated with Africa and the black population. Some far-right commentators and politicians coined the racist term “Obola,” a cross between Ebola and Barack Obama, when the African-American was still president of the United States, to politicize and racialize the disease.

This is precisely why the WHO warns about names like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) or even Lyme disease, which refers to the Connecticut city where that tick-borne bacterial disease was first identified.

According to Viala-Gaudefroy, we must be careful with the serious economic consequences that come with being perceived as the origin of COVID-19 mutations, because “the problem is that countries will avoid reporting new variants so that they are not associated with them.”