B.1.617, B.1.1.7, B.1.351… Retaining the scientific names of the Covid-19 variants is proving to be a real headache. But the World Health Organization (WHO) will simplify things by also giving them names of Greek letters.
The idea is to have names “Easy to pronounce and remember”, but also to prevent the general public and the media from using names “Stigmatizing and discriminatory” referring to the place where the first cases of the variant were detected, explained the WHO in a statement released Monday, May 31.
In the United States, for example, attacks against people of Asian origin have increased, Donald Trump, who was president during the first year of the pandemic, having done everything to blame China, where the new coronavirus was detected for the first time. He often spoke of the Chinese virus or « Kung Flu » (a play on words with flu, which means “flu” in English). Congress even adopted a law to better combat the phenomenon, the “Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act”.
Scientific names will continue to exist, as they provide useful data to experts, but WHO will no longer use them in its daily communication. The organization strongly encourages national authorities, the media and others to adopt the new names.
The English variant called “Alpha”
The variant B.1.1.7, first identified in the United Kingdom, is called “Alpha” by the WHO. It is also known by scientists as “VoC 202012/01″, the abbreviation for ” variant of concern December 2020 ”, because it is on this date that the country realizes that a first viral genome comprising nearly twenty mutations has appeared and that its meteoric progression requires special monitoring, hence concern, for “of concern”.
In France, the first case was confirmed in Tours on December 25, 2020; it was a Frenchman returning from London. The arrival of the Alpha variant in France was accompanied by a strong epidemic outbreak, which began in January, was somewhat attenuated by the February holidays and by the curfew, to resume in March. Majority, it now represents between 70% and 90% of cases depending on the region, explains the scientific council in its opinion dated May 6.
Studies have shown it to be more transmissible and associated with more severe forms than the historic virus. According to an English study published in the journal British Medical Journal (BMJ) in March, it is 64% more fatal than the classic coronavirus: for 1,000 cases detected, it causes 4.1 deaths, against 2.5 for the classic coronavirus. The vaccines remain effective against him, according to several studies.
The South African variant becomes “Beta”
B.1.351, first identified in South Africa at the end of 2020, is referred to as “Beta”. Today, it circulates in 87 countries, according to the WHO. In France, it represents, with the so-called “Brazilian” variant, around 6% of cases nationally, “With departmental heterogeneities”, as the health agency Public Health France underlines in its weekly bulletin of May 27.
Like the British variant, it has mutations that make it more contagious than the classic virus and more resistant to certain vaccines. According to Public Health France, this variant presents a “Higher risk of immune escape and reinfection” : “Some research indicates an increased risk of death in hospital in the order of 20%. This variant is said to have the ability to evade the post-infection and post-vaccination immune response, and may therefore increase the risk of reinfection. “
The Brazilian variant is called “Gamma”
The P1 variant, which the WHO has dubbed “Gamma”, was detected on January 2 in a Japanese tourist returning from Brazil. It has spread at high speed in Brazil and is present in more than fifty countries, according to the WHO. In France, it has become the majority in Guyana.
The Brazilian variant is more contagious, more resistant to vaccines and could cause cases of reinfection. However, its resistance to vaccines is less than that of the South African variant. The scientific council reports that the effectiveness of vaccines on the Brazilian variant is “Retained but reduced”. It remains only partially inhibited by antibodies from individuals infected with the original virus.
Two names for the Indian variant, “Delta” and “Kappa”
The WHO has given two different names to the distinct sublines of the B.1.617 variant, which is in part linked to the resurgence of the epidemic in India where it was first spotted in October 2020, before breaking down. extend to at least forty-four countries: B.1.617.2 becomes “Delta”, and B.1.617.1 “Kappa”. It was classified in May by the WHO as “Variant of concern”, joining in this highest category the British, South African and Brazilian variants.
The Indian variant In fact, there are three distinct sublines, which contain two mutations associated with greater transmissibility of the virus (L452R and D614G). However, its effects in terms of transmission and dangerousness are still very poorly understood. With the worsening of the epidemic in India, the variant was soon found to be responsible, but the WHO believes that the acceleration of transmission of the virus in the country is linked to “Several potential factors” : a variant possibly more transmissible, but also the behavior of “Several mass religious and political gatherings” and “Reduced respect for social public health measures” intended to slow down the transmission of the virus.
According to the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “No information is available” on the severity of symptoms caused by the Indian variant. As for the risks of immune escape, there are only very limited data available for the moment. “The potential impacts of the B.1.617 lines on the efficacy of vaccines or treatments, or on the risks of reinfection remain uncertain”, summarizes the WHO, which calls for new, urgently based studies on its impacts.