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The new naming system for virus variants; Why Indian Variant term is racist?

The World Health Organization (WHO) would unveil a system of the naming of coronavirus variants drawn from the way tropical storms are named, WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan says. It is an initiative to name the variant found in different countries, similar to how hurricanes are labelled and seek to remove the stigma. 

“The new naming system should go live soon — yes, it will be named like hurricanes. This is so as not to stigmatise and de-incentivise countries from making their sequencing results public. It will also be easier for the lay public to remember rather than these complicated lineage numbers,” she said in an email to The Hindu.

The WHO and health and science agencies across the world, for instance, the Indian Council of Medical Research, the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and the Public Health England refer to viruses and their variants by formal lineage names, which are a combination of letters and names that point to the relationships between different variants.

The virus variants such as B.1.1.7 and B.1.617 suggest that they have certain mutations in common and as well clues to their evolutionary history.

The virus names and their associated diseases have frequently been named after geographical places where outbreaks were first reported or samples first isolated — such as the West Nile virus or Ebola.

B.1.1.7 started to be known as the ‘U.K. variant’ and B.1.351 as the ‘South African’ variant.

India’s Health Ministry, in the aftermath of B.1.617 that was popularly called the ‘Indian variant’, issued a press release denouncing the use of the name.

Why naming the virus ‘Indian variant was racist?

In 2020, when the coronavirus cases were reported worldwide, the world was calling it “Wuhan Virus” or “ Chinese Virus” in regards to the place it first originated, but WHO disagreed. They said country and culture names cannot be linked to a virus. And they insisted on an anodyne name, sars-cov-2. And those linking the virus with China or calling it “Chinese Virus” were called a racist. : Last year, when former American President Donald Trump called coronavirus the “Chinese virus”, he was under heavy criticism for making a racist slur. Later, when he termed Covid-19 as “Kung Flu” in his election rallies, critics all across the world slammed it as a blatant racist joke.

And since then the virulent virus is evolving and the mutations have been reported from all over the world. The world is calling them British mutant, the South African variant, the Brazil variant, the Indian double mutant, etc.

Here we discuss why calling it by the name of any country makes it racist? and how history will be brutal to the countries whose name is associated with the mutation if we continue to do so?

As Coronavirus mutates, new strains are being named after where they were first found, such as referring to B.1.617 as the ‘Indian variant’, the variant found in India. 

The problem of naming the virus after the location attaches a stigma to the people from that place. Further, the stigmatization leads up to the racist stereotypes of anyone who familiarise or “looks like” that they come from that place. 

This could be validated how the phrase “Chinese virus” led to hate crimes against those who appear ‘Asian’.

Calling the virus as “Chinese virus” caused a rise in racial slurs and physical violence against Asian-Americans, inspiring the hashtag ‘Stop Asian Hate’.

The alternative naming system is crucial at this point in time as reports of virus mutation are being reported from different parts of the world. A proper system for naming the virus will not only discourage the prominent racism and stigmatisation but will allow the countries to report more if any other mutation is found. As fear of stigmatization for being the ‘source’ of a dangerous new variant might then be discouraged from revealing the emergence of other variants.

As Oliver Pybus, an evolutionary biologist who co-developed the lineage-based naming system, told the journal Nature, “The last thing we want to do is dissuade any particular place from reporting they’ve got a new concerning variant — in fact, we want to do the opposite.”

In an article published in Science, de Oliveira and colleagues pointed out another issue with using locations for labels: a new variant that’s initially detected in a particular country didn’t necessarily emerge there.

As the article explains, “It is not known whether patient zero of each variant was a resident of or visitor to that country, and all variants have been identified well beyond the first countries in which they were identified.” Names can therefore wrongly assign blame to the place where a variant was first found.

Furthermore, the practice of naming a variant after a country can wrongly blame people from that place, as explained in a recent article entitled ‘Appropriate names for COVID-19 variants’, the article covers some of the problems with geographic labelling and concludes that “scientific and media reports should not refer to variants by country names.”

In January 2021, at WHO’s Sixth Emergency Committee meeting on the Covid-19 pandemic researchers and officials discussed naming systems and media-friendly terms for new variants.

WHO claimed it would “continue to work with partners to develop standardized definitions and nomenclature of SARS-CoV-2 virus variants, based on their genetic sequence, that avoids stigmatization and is geographically and politically neutral.”

A proper naming system still awaits as media outlets continue to use the name of the “source” of the mutating virus. 

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