The World Health Organization on Monday announced a new naming system for coronavirus variants, CNN reports. The system will use the Greek alphabet to make variant names both accessible for nonscientific audiences and nondiscriminatory toward locations.

  • COVID-19 variants have always received scientific names, strings of numbers and letters, and will continue to be named and referred to this way among scientific communities, reports The New York Times.
  • Variants have also gained informal nicknames among the public based on the geographic locations that first identified the variant, reports The New York Times.

The shift away from using geographically based nicknames for diseases breaks historical precedents, says CNN.

Why did WHO change the coronavirus variant naming system?

The current informal system risks stigmatizing communities and damaging regions by associating specific locations with devastating diseases, says CNN. These associations are sometimes inaccurate since the location that detects a disease is rarely where it first emerged, says USA Today.

According to The New York Times, the identification of COVID-19 variants depend more on the strength of a region's genome surveillance to track mutations than on where the mutation first appeared.

  • “No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” said WHO epidemiologist via The Guardian.

WHO hopes the new system will encourage countries to report new variants without the fear of being forever associated with the variant in the public eye, reports USA Today

What are the new names of existing COVID-19 variants?

The current list of COVID-19 variants includes 10 mutations, according to CNN and The Guardian. According to CNN, the four variants of concern and their new names include:

  • Variant B.1.1.7, first identified in Kent, the United Kingdom, is now called alpha.
  • Variant B.1.351, first identified in South Africa, is now called beta.
  • Variant P.1, first identified in Brazil, is now called gamma.
  • Variant B.1.617.2, first identified in India, is now called delta.

Two other variants first identified in the U.S. have received new Greek names. According to CNN, these include:

  • Variant B.1.427/429 is now called epsilon.
  • Variant B.1.526 is now called iota.

When variants use up the 24 Greek letters, WHO will announce a new system, says USA Today. Currently, its uncertain if the new naming system will stick, says The New York Times.