What are the alpha and beta variants of COVID?

The World Health Organization has classified alpha and beta variants of covid
Photo via United States Mission Geneva/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: July 15, 2021

A number of variants have emerged since the COVID-19 pandemic began. With more than five notable variants identified in the United States alone, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the public to keep track. Complicated scientific names are difficult for the layperson to keep up with, so the World Health Organization (WHO) is hoping to simplify things by classifying the variants with letters of the Greek alphabet. The earliest known COVID variants will be classified as “alpha” and “beta,” with other variants working their way down the Greek alphabet from there.

The new names aren’t a replacement for the official scientific classifications, but the WHO is hoping the change will discourage stigma against countries where new variants are discovered. It also aims to help avoid confusion, as the sometimes complex scientific names can be easily mixed up.

Under the new classifications for variants, the B.1.1.7 COVID variant, which initially cropped up in the U.K., will be called “Alpha;” the B.1.351 variant, which was first identified in South Africa, will be called “Beta;” and the P.1 variant, out of Brazil, will now go by “Gamma.”

The most worrisome variant, though, is the “Delta” variant, first discovered in India, that is spreading across the globe with alarming speed. In early July, the delta variant had become the dominant strain of COVID in the U.S.

In a statement on May 31, the WHO explained its reasoning for the change of names. “While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting,” the statement reads. “As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

The issue of stigmatization has been prevalent since the first days of the pandemic.

As noted by NPR, former President Donald Trump has been repeatedly quoted referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus,” “Wuhan virus,” and even “kung-flu.” This prompted such language to become commonplace, and it has likely contributed to the rise of anti-Asian sentiments around the nation. In some cases, those anti-Asian sentiments have resulted in violence, which officials are hoping to discourage with the new names. 

The Greek alphabet is a bit shorter than the English alphabet, with only 24 letters in total. According to NPR, 10 of these have already been claimed, four are assigned to “variants of concern,” and six are assigned to “variants of interest.”

Sources: NPR, CDC, Healthline

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