Sigma Phi-ing Monkeyshines at the W.H.O.

Is it really easier to remember that the British variant is now named “Alpha” instead of B.1.1.7? And does Britain really need Geneva’s protection?

To make life easier for all of us confused by all the new viral variants, the World Health Organization has decided to call them by the letters of the Greek alphabet.

As in: the British or U.K. variant will henceforth be known as Alpha.

Feel better? I don’t.

I know the W.H.O. means well. But this is a classic example of the agency spotting a problem, debating it for weeks — and then making it worse.

True, “Alpha,” as in alpha dog or Alpha Centauri, is easier to remember than B.1.1.7 or Gr/501YV1 or 20I/S:501Y.V1, the monickers used for the variant in Pango, GISAID and Nextstrain notation, if you happen to understand those viral Dewey Decimal Systems.

But some of us have to write for real people. And some of us have to remember which variant we mean when we’re mumbling faster than we’re thinking on a podcast.

Who will be able to remember that the American variant is now called Epsilon? Unless we mean the other American variant called Iota?

How many of us even knew that Iota was a letter? Never mind how few journalists can speak Pango, how many journalists does the W.H.O. think actually studied Greek? Do they think we all know that after Alpha comes…uh, Bravo? No, wait, Alpha, Beta, Comma, Deltoid, Epsom, F-Bomb, Gimel… Something…Something…Eta….Lambchop…Mu….Nu…Omigod…Pi (easy)…Rhoda…Something…Fuggedaboutit.

And is this variant the one with E484K? Or N501Y? Or both? Argh…what are the Greek letters for Oy and Vay?

And just for fun, if we have to go with Greek: could we please name the original Wuhan strain Xi, as in Xi Jinping?

And what happens when more than 24 variants need names and we have already used up Omega? (That’s right, Zeta, as in Catherine Z-Jones, is not the end of this alphabet. Omega — as in as in heart-healthy fish oil or as in Q Dogs — is.)

What then? Alpha 1.1, Alpha 1.2.3 and so on?

How quickly will that too become unwieldy?


So what was wrong with “the British variant”?

According to the W.H.O., it resists geographical names for pathogens for fear that they will “stigmatize” the nations they’re named for.

As if no one would ever speak to the Brits again because a variant emerged somewhere on the sceptered isle. As if our respect for parliamentary democracy, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Oxford dons, bewigged judges, James Bond, Harry Potter and Man U will blow away like the head on a warm beer and we will mock them with names like “The New Je-Flu-salem” or “Q.E. Flu.”

Really? Did “U.K. variant” make them bow their heads in shame and slink silently off the world stage wiping away a tear?

No. They’re British. They stiff-upper-lipped it and carried on, as if there will always be an England.

Average folks in Britain, like those in South Africa, India, Brazil and even here in the delicate U.S. of A., are self-confident and resilient and don’t need Geneva’s pious protection.

I think the W.H.O. greatly overstates the damage done by geographic names.

The Spanish flu — which absolutely did not start in Spain and may have even started in Kansas — did not make the world despise Spain. And, had things turned out differently, there would still be a Kansas, Dorothy.

Asia was still Asia before and after the “Asian flu” of 1957. Hong Kong’s problems do not date to 1968, the year of the “Hong Kong flu.”

The last time the W.H.O. tried to force a solution to the stigmatization problem, it made a complete hash of it.

It was the spring of 2009. A new human flu with a never-seen-before mix of human influenza, bird influenza and swine influenza genes emerged in the pig-farming village of La Gloria in Mexico’s Veracruz state.

It quickly reached the United States, and then went pandemic.

This time, headline writers resisted opting for “Mexico flu.” Because scientists said it had originated in pigs, they used “Swine flu.”

That caused blowback that would have seemed ridiculous if it hadn’t also been so tragic. In Egypt, the government ordered that all pigs be culled.

Most pig farmers in Egypt were Coptic Christians, who were already an oppressed minority. The cull impoverished them even further. And, because the farmers collected household refuse for pig food, reeking garbage piled up all over Cairo.

But what really brought pressure to bear for a new name was not that actual suffering. It was that, in the United States, sales of bacon and pork chops plummeted. The pork producers association panicked and began visiting the W.H.O. and newspaper editors asking them to stop saying “swine flu.” It was now a solidly human flu, they insisted, so please forget about its genetic ancestors.

The W.H.O. proposed a solution: they would henceforth refer to the flu as A(H1N1) S.O.I.V.

Translation: an “A” strain flu with a type 1 hemagglutinin spike and a type 1 neuraminidase enzyme in a “swine-origin influenza virus.” The S.O.I.V. tag was needed because the 1918 flu was the original A(H1N1) and seasonal A(H1N1)s had circulated for decades.

Needless to say, “A(H1N1) S.O.I.V.” did not not roll trippingly off the tongues of CNN and Fox anchors. It did not become a headline word. It sank like a dried pork butt.

Two years later, the W.H.O. relented and rechristened the virus A(H1N1)pdm09, the new suffix indicating “2009 pandemic.”

That didn’t catch on either. When journalists must recall that pandemic, they usually say “the 2009 swine flu,” sometimes adding “which originated in Mexico.”

Mexico survived. Bacon sales recovered. The National Pork Producers Council gave up the fight.

I can think of two possible ways to fix this.

One is to adhere strictly to accurate geographic locations, but drill down to a detail so obscure or so diffuse that very few inhabitants can be stigmatized.

The 2009 virus could have been called “La Gloria flu.”

Today’s coronavirus could have been the “Seafood Market virus.”

There are many examples of this, even in this country: Lyme disease. La Crosse virus. Powassan virus, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. (OK, St. Louis isn’t obscure or diffuse, but it survived being known as the home of St. Louis encephalitis.)

But a better solution may be the same one that Dr. Peter Piot and the other discoverers* of the Ebola virus arrived at in 1976.

The new hemorrhagic fever they isolated was killing people in the village of Yambuku, in what was then Zaire.

To avoid stigmatizing the locals — it was a truly horrible disease and descriptions of it spread all over the world — they resisted naming it “Zaire virus” or “Yambuku virus.”

Instead, they named it after a nearby river, the Ebola.

The name is clearly memorable — nearly everyone knows what Ebola is — and bodies of water don’t take offense.

Could something like this be applied today? Why not?

The South African variant, B.1.351, was first found in a municipal area named Nelson Mandela Bay. No one is going to propose the “Nelson Mandela variant,” of course. But the municipality is actually on the shores of Algoa Bay. How about “the Algoa variant”?

The British variant was first found in Kent, which lies at the mouth of the Thames. The “Kent variant”? The “Thames variant”? Again: why not?

“Thames variant” would be a step up from “The Great Stink” of 1858. And Kent could be confused with a brand of cigarettes, but the company might not fight it, since that would revive the memory that they were the first brand to feature asbestos filters.

Of the American variants, Iota comes from New York and Epsilon was found in Los Angeles. How about Hudson and Coyote Creek? Or, for that matter, Wall Street and the Sunset Strip? (Again, a refreshing step up in the stigma department for those locales.)

The two notable Indian variants are from West Bengal and Maharashtra. Something more original than Delta and Kappa — and something that sounds less like a Yale frat —could be devised. Train stations, former rulers, even local gods — there are dozens of naming possibilities.

You get the idea. The point is to find something inoffensive but still catchy enough to stick in the memories of average readers, rather than virologists.

Virologists are never going to be satisfied — a virus encoding thousands of amino acids can produce an endless number of variants. And the Greeks didn’t speak Pango either.

*Since publishing this, I’ve learned that chief credit for picking the Ebola River goes to Dr. Karl M. Johnson, a C.D.C. researcher on the team. Dr. Johnson was also instrumental in naming the Machupo virus and hantaviruses after rivers.



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Donald G. McNeil Jr.

New York Times, 1976–2021. Last beat: lead Covid reporter. 2020 Chancellor Award; 2021 NYT team Pulitzer