World Health Organization to Adopt Standardized Nomenclature for COVID-19 Variants

Following the sixth meeting of the Emergency Committee regarding the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the World Health Organization announced  on January 14, 2021 that it is developing a standardized nomenclature for COVID-19 variants “that does not reference a geographical location.” In a letter to Science magazine, Salim S. Abdool Karim, Tulio de Oliveira, and Glaudina Loots suggested an alternative naming convention is necessary, as the practice of applying geographical qualifiers is generally inaccurate and often harmful to the ethnic people from the region.

The authors write, “The connotation that the variants were created and spread by their respective first locations has already generated political backlash through travel bans and negative perceptions of these countries and their people. The risk of being associated with a new variant also disincentivizes country-level genomic surveillance and transparent reporting of their results.” The new naming guidelines are expected to be released soon, but the authors of the letter believe scientific and media outlets should not delay in avoiding reference to the country or region of first description when identifying variants.