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If you’ve been struggling to make sense of SARS-CoV-2 variant nomenclature, you’re not alone. Due to the existence of multiple genomic sequence databases, various naming systems are in use for the rapidly growing range of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern/interest.

In a bid to simplify naming and limit the stigma associated with associated countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) this week, announced a new, simplified naming system for SARS-CoV-2 variants based on the Greek alphabet:

Designation
WHO Name
Pango Lineage
GISAID Clage/Lineage
Nextstrain Clade
Earliest Documented Identification
Date of Designation
 
Variant of Concern
 
 
Alpha
 
 
B.1.1.7
 
 
GRY (formerly GR/501Y.V1)
 
 
20I/S:501Y.V1
 
 
UK
Sep-20
 
 
18-Dec-20
 
 
Beta
 
 
B.1.351
 
 
GH/501Y.V2
 
 
20H/S:501Y.V2
 
 
South Africa
May-20
 
 
18-Dec-20
 
 
Gamma
 
 
P.1
 
 
GR/501Y.V3
 
 
20J/S:501Y.V3
 
 
Brazil
Nov-20
 
 
11-Jan-21
 
 
Delta
 
 
B.1.617.2
 
 
G/5452R.V3
 
 
21A/S:478K
 
 
India
Oct-20
 
 
04-Apr-21
 
 
Variant of Interest
 
 
Epsilon
 
 
B.1.427/B.1.429
 
 
GH/452R.V1
 
 
20C/S.452R
 
 
US
Mar-20
 
 
05-Mar-21
 
 
Zeta
 
 
P.2
 
 
GR
 
 
20B/S.484K
 
 
Brazil
Apr-20
 
 
17-Mar-21
 
 
Eta
 
 
B.1.525
 
 
G/484K.V3
 
 
20A/S484K
 
 
Multiple Countries
Dec-20
 
 
17-Mar-21
 
 
Theta
 
 
P.3
 
 
GR
 
 
20B/S:265C
 
 
Philippines
Jan-21
 
 
24-Mar-21
 
 
Iota
 
 
B.1.526
 
 
GH
 
 
20C/S:484K
 
 
US
Nov-20
 
 
24-Mar-21
 
 
Kappa
 
 
B.1.617.1
 
 
G/5452R.V3
 
 
21A/S:154K
 
 
India
Oct-20
 
 
4-Apr-21
 

The naming has been in the works for months by the WHO’s Virus Evolution Working Group (VEWG), including representatives from the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). The initial plan was to use two-syllable portmanteaus, but it soon became apparent that too many were already claimed — by companies, locations or families. Combining three syllables didn’t solve the problem and four syllables became unwieldy.

For a while, VEWG considered using the names of Greek gods and goddesses, but that eventually fell through. The idea of simply numbering them one, two, three, and so on was considered, but then rejected due to the potential for confusion with the names already used in genomic databases. Settling on the Greek alphabet, these new names are intended to complement existing labels as a simpler adjunct. When the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet have been exhausted, another series like it will be announced. Click here to see the WHO’s original press release.