Can’t keep track of COVID-19 variants? They now have easier-to-remember names


    Interpath Laboratory in Boise
    For the past two decades, the Boise lab of Interpath Laboratory has helped doctors, nurse practitioners and hospitals diagnose and treat patients. With the recent arrival of SARS-CoV-2 variants, the lab took on a different task: helping Idaho epidemiologists look for variants. "We feel really fortunate that we've been involved in this process," said Judy Kennedy, Interpath's marketing director.

    The World Health Organization on Monday announced a new series of names for certain coronavirus variants.

    The WHO says the names, based on the Greek alphabet, could make it easier to follow the shifting virus, without implying connections between geographic areas and the potentially deadly COVID-19 disease.

    It is normal for a virus to mutate as it jumps from person to person, replicating itself in the cells of human and animal bodies.

    Many of those mutations are harmless or even make the virus weaker. But a growing number of “variants of concern” and “variants of interest” have emerged. Global health experts monitor those variants because of mutations that are confirmed or suspected to make the virus better at spreading, infecting people, making people sicker, thwarting medical treatments and/or resisting antibodies.

    Public health experts, journalists, elected officials and others have struggled with the best way to communicate about them. For example, the B.1.1.7 lineage variant was first discovered in the United Kingdom. But using the lineage name may confuse the public; calling it the “UK variant” may create harmful associations with the location in which it was first identified.

    The new Greek-alphabet labels “were chosen after wide consultation and a review of many potential naming systems,” the WHO said in its announcement. “WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities.”

    Public health experts and researchers will continue to use the scientific names in their work, the WHO said. That’s because their work involves tracing certain mutations and their origins.

    “While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting,” the WHO said. “As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory. To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels.”

    The Idaho Capital Sun will begin using these names immediately.

    The variants can only be discovered through a special laboratory sequencing process. Idaho, and the U.S. as a whole, were not sequencing a large number of COVID-19 samples to identify variants until earlier this year.

    WHO name Lineage name First detected Confirmed in Idaho as of June 1?
    Alpha B.1.1.7 United Kingdom,
    September 2020
    Beta B.1.351 South Africa,
    May 2020
    Delta B.1.617.2 India,
    October 2020
    Gamma P.1 Brazil,
    November 2020
    Epsilon B.1.427/B.1.429 California,
    March 2020
    Zeta P.2 Brazil,
    April 2020
    Eta B.1.525 multiple countries,
    December 2020
    Theta P.3 Philippines,
    January 2021
    Iota B.1.526 New York City,
    November 2020
    Kappa B.1.617.1 India,
    October 2020
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    Audrey Dutton
    Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, radio journalism, data visualization and much more. Her resume also includes fellowships from the Association of Health Care Journalists, Idaho Press Club, Idaho Media Initiative and Investigative Reporters and Editors. Dutton also teaches an upper-division journalism course at Boise State University. She resides in Boise with her husband, young daughter and two cats.