The rationale was that repurposing the robin or quail as catchy labels for ungainly mutants would be less confusing for the public. That would also please politicians in member states like South Africa and India who were unhappy with the way ordinary people named new virus strains after the country where they were first discovered: “the South African variant,” “the Indian variant.”
Predictably, however, feathers were ruffled. As one commentator protested: “It is almost inevitable that some will mistakenly think the birds are responsible for Covid, putting robins and pelicans at risk the world over.” Another complained: “If the ‘Robin’ variant takes off, you will be stigmatizing my daughter and every other person named Robin.”
It’s hard to find a good name for a bad virus. Back in December, the WHO began brainstorming an easy-to-remember system for naming coronavirus variants that would be acceptable to almost 200 member states, as well as the scientists who follow, and often nitpick, the agency’s recommendations.
Thus a task force of several dozen virologists, microbiologists and taxonomists from around the world was given the near-impossible job of all agreeing on one idea. The overriding rule: Variants can’t be named after the place they were found. It made sense to avoid stigmatizing countries doing the legwork of identifying virus strains in their populations.
What about Greek gods — from Apollo to Zeus? That was struck down because of trademark concerns, and those myths were often violent. Using common names — Andrew, Katrina — as is done for hurricanes went against the agency’s “Best Practices.”
A simple numerical system, where the first variant would be V1, was rejected because V2 was the name of a German rocket used during World War II. Because birds required proficiency in English, it never got much consideration. The group didn’t have consensus.
Another proposal for an ornate system of make-believe nouns — Alcanopa, Focanuba — was shot down because it all sounded like alien names in a science-fiction universe. The whole exercise left some impressed with how easily the WHO turned a coronavirus disease from 2019 into “Covid-19.” That seemed wonky at first but soon caught on.
At stake is whether the WHO can solve a problem as old as the plague. Governments big and small fear the consequences of announcing a new disease found on their soil. The undesirable reward is often having a disease named after a local river — Ebola — or a town — Lyme — or the nation itself, like Spanish Flu, which virologists say almost certainly came from the U.S.
Finally, they settled on a Greek alphabet-based system that some of the task force’s own members say still might not serve the intended purpose. Henceforth, governments and media should refer to the variant previously known as the U.K. variant, as Alpha, while one detected in South Africa is Beta. Gamma was the new name for a strain thought to have originated in Brazil, while Delta was one of the variants first found in India.
Nevertheless, not everybody was happy. As one scientist quipped, “It’s hard for me to imagine that when I talk to my neighbor he will say ‘I’m really worried about the Delta variant,” he said. An unhappy Greek national demanded to know why the WHO hadn’t chosen the Roman alphabet. Also, there are only 24 letters in the Greek alphabet, a gamble that the pandemic will subside before it reaches Omega.
It may be the panelists bought themselves as little as six months, which is about as long as it took to create the system.