At the start of this year, scientists were stumped. In a time of pandemic that might seem like an obvious statement. But, we don’t mean stumped by this ever-evolving virus and the effects – or not – of the multitude of vaccines.
“A bloody mess” cried out a headline on nature.com. “Confusing”, claimed National Geographic. “Weird” reported the New York Times. “A surprisingly tricky process”, the BBC explained. “The world needs a single naming system for coronavirus!” everyone proclaimed.
Of course, this naming frenzy wasn’t about the general public’s use of identifying coronavirus variants. Nobody at all was struggling to remember or understand the ‘UK variant’ and the ‘SA variant’.
We’re talking about the scientific names such as B.1.1.7, which is the official name of the variant first identified in the UK or P.1, the official name of the variant first documented in Brazil. There’s also B. 1.351, B.1427 and C.37, among others.
Really, who can blame the public for going with geography?
But, we don’t have to worry about that anymore. A new naming system has been heralded and it’s the trusted, familiar Greek alphabet.
Forget the ‘India Variant’, now it’s ‘Delta’. The UK is Alpha, SA is Beta, Brazil is Gamma.
Other considerations for the naming system included portmanteaus, simple numbers and Greek gods & goddesses.
In a statement that is surprising to, and evokes jealousy from, branding people, the WHO naming task team leader said: “I heard it’s sometimes quite a challenge to come to an agreement with regards to nomenclature. This was a relatively straightforward discussion in getting to the point where everybody agreed.”
Scientists do it better, it seems.
Not to poke holes. Ok, maybe to poke one hole. What’s the purpose of re-naming in this case specifically? It’s not to change the scientific or official names of the variants. According to the WHO’s coronavirus lead, it’s “just to try to help some of the dialogue with the average person. So that in public discourse, we could discuss some of these variants in more easy-to-use language.”
Dialogue with the average person? Outside of Greeks, Cypriots, the sororities and fraternities of American universities and the linguistically and intellectually inclined, who knows the Greek alphabet beyond Beta?! Is Omicron easy? How about the similar-sounding and looking Epsilon and Upsilon? (Did you even know there was an Upsilon?)
It doesn’t get any easier than the default, geography-based naming that has been going on.
We know that the new system is meant to do away with geographical stigma. It’s to tackle discrimination and xenophobia. Reduce the governments’ hesitancy to report a variant lest their whole history and culture be diminished. Discourage human nature – or ex-Presidents – from showing their ugly side.
And this is essential in a global pandemic that has become politicized and has sparked blame games, suspicion, and two sparring sides on every single aspect.
Naming viruses by geography is a human impulse. The Spanish flu. German measles. Ebola is a river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Zika was first identified in Uganda’s Zika Forest.
Do we really imagine that future conversations won’t go like this:
“I tested positive for Gamma.”
“Gamma? Which one is that?”
This is not to say that the geographic mode of naming is the correct one.
But to tackle human impulse, meaning is most important.
Geography is relatable. Especially in this exact scenario. A pandemic is a pandemic because it’s global. We have spent the last 15 months seeing just how interconnected the world is. Naming by location feeds and borrows from that notion.
The Greek alphabet is meaningless. It can’t even be said that it’s about chronological order because the average person isn’t really familiar with the sequence.
(Has anyone asked the Greeks if they’re ok with being associated with every variant of a virus?)
A numerical system could have worked, even if it’s as dry as can be. V1, V2, V3, V4. Boring. But understandable. Relatable. Has inherent significance. And therefore could be a real solution.
Britain may have been the first to report the B.1.1.7 variant of SARS-CoV-2, once known as the UK variant and now known as Alpha, but that doesn’t mean the variant originated there. What it does mean is that the variant was first detected there.
So maybe a new naming system could have perpetuated this fact, pushing a new narrative about how variants are found because of good investigative work rather than some perceived, un-informed national flaw.
Maybe the naming system should have borrowed from fictional detective characters. Marple. Pescado. Espinoza. Gulabi. Colombo. Poirot, should Belgium detect a variant. Lupin if the French does.
All kidding aside. Why not pay tribute to the real-life discoverers? Why not use the name of the individual or team or organization behind the discovery of the variants to pay tribute to their work? This is already a common practice in the medical field. There’s a long list of eponymous diseases: Alzheimer’s; Dr Asperger Syndrome; Hodgkin’s Lymphoma; Down Syndrome.
It feels like there was – is- an opportunity for a new naming system that could have addressed more than just a name change. Maybe addressed some root misperceptions. That would have substituted one story for another and not just one name for the other.
Bellwether Branding is a strategy-led brand consultancy that believes in asking questions and considering varying and opposing perspectives.