Covid variants could be named after star constellations if Greek alphabet is used up, says WHO epidemiologist

Names including Orion, Gemini and Aries could be assigned, suggests Maria Van Kerkhove

Tom Batchelor
Sunday 08 August 2021 12:07 BST
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New coronavirus variants could be named after star constellations when the 24 letters in the Greek alphabet are used up, the Covid-19 technical lead for the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said.

Maria Van Kerkhove revealed the body was considering how the naming rule for mutations of interest and concern should change amid concerns new variants will continue to emerge in the coming months.

In June, the WHO renamed Covid variants after letters of the Greek alphabet to avoid “stigmatising” the countries which first reported them.

Eleven variants have so far been named – including the Alpha variant first detected in Kent, and the Delta variant identified in India.

Once the 24 Greek letters have been exhausted, names including Orion, Gemini and Aries could be used, Dr Van Kerkhove told The Daily Telegraph.

“We will possibly run out of the Greek alphabet, but we’re already looking at the next series of names,” she said.

“We’re actually considering star constellations. We were going to go with Greek gods or goddesses, and I said please, please don’t make me say that publicly.”

The Greek alphabet names do not replace existing scientific names but were brought in as they are “easier and more practical to be discussed by non-scientific audiences”, the WHO said in June.

Viruses have historically been associated with the locations from which they are thought to have emerged, including Ebola – named after the Ebola River close to where the haemorrhagic virus was first discovered – and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

The WHO gave Covid-19 its name to avoid its association with the Chinese city of Wuhan.

A panel of scientists considered several alternatives for the new system, including Greek Gods and pseudo-classical invented names, before settling on the Greek alphabet.

Dr Van Kerkhove said the prospect of mutations of the virus rendering the current vaccines ineffective was a “real threat”.

She told the newspaper: “It’s certainly possible that you could have mutations that will evade our countermeasures … and that’s why it’s so critical that we just don’t rely only on vaccines, that we do everything we can to really drive transmission down.”

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