WHO to announce system to name virus variants ‘like hurricanes’

New naming system should go live soon: WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan

May 18, 2021 08:19 pm | Updated 08:19 pm IST - NEW DELHI

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan. File

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan. File

The World Health Organisation (WHO) would unveil a system of naming viruses that would be inspired from the way tropical storms are named, WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan told The Hindu .

“The new naming system should go live soon - yes it will be names like hurricanes. This is so as not to stigmatise and deincentivise countries from making their sequencing results public. It will also be easier for the lay public to remember rather than these complicated lineage numbers,” she said in an email.

The WHO and health and science agencies across the world, for instance the Indian Council of Medical Research, the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and the Public Health England refer to viruses and their variants by formal lineage names, which are a combination of letters and names that point to the relationships between different variants. To the trained eye, variants such as B.1.1.7 and B.1.617 suggest that they have certain mutations in common and as well clues to their evolutionary history.

Stigmatising places

However, because virus names and their associated diseases have frequently been named after geographical places where outbreaks were first reported or samples first isolated—such as the West Nile virus or Ebola—they are also considered to be stigmatising. But popular usage of the virus has frequently referred to place names, with early references to SARSCOV2 as the “Wuhan virus”. With the discovery of important variants of the virus being linked to increased infectiousness, B.1.1.7 started to be known as the ‘UK variant’ and B.1.351 as the ‘South African’ variant.

And India’s Health Ministry, in the aftermath of B.1.617 that was popularly called the ‘Indian variant’, issued a press release decrying the media’s use of the name. In several prior briefings on international variants of concern, the Ministry and other government officials have routinely referred to these variants by their country of origin.

The dilemma of having names that don’t stigmatise places but also are amenable to popular use has to an extent been solved by the system of naming hurricanes, or tropical cyclones.

The World Meteorological Organisation leaves it to countries that surround a particular ocean basin to come up with names that are then used by rotation. This was a practice that began in 2004 and until then cyclones, like virus names, had alphabetical references. The Odisha super cyclone of 1999, for instance, was never named and in the meteorological books was known as BOB 06 (referencing its origin in the Bay of Bengal). The cyclonic storm in the Arabian Sea, Tauktae, which passed over Gujarat, for instance, was proposed by Myanmar. Cyclone Gati last year was a name chosen by India.

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