Standard nomenclature for SARS-CoV-2 variants rises to the occasion

Eurofins Technologies offers a new molecular solution to detect SARS-CoV-2 variants B.1.1.7 (UK) and B.1.351 (South Africa). (Image credit: Eurofins Technologies)

In the context of the COVID-19 infodemic, the global profusion of monikers and hashtags for the emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants have found their way into daily communication and contributed to political backlash against local people. Standard nomenclature for such SARS-CoV-2 virus variants rises to the occasion.

SARS-CoV-2 variants waiting for standard nomenclature

The SARS-CoV-2 strains is mutating, and diverse variants have emerged across most of the globe during the past several months. A variant of SARS-CoV-2 with a D614G substitution in the gene encoding the spike protein emerged in late January or early February 2020. As such, several new variants emerged in the fall of 2020, most notably:

  • In the United Kingdom (UK), a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 (known as 20I/501Y.V1, VOC 202012/01, or B.1.1.7) emerged with a large number of mutations. This variant has since been detected in numerous countries around the world, including the United States (US). In January 2021, scientists from UK reported evidence that suggests the B.1.1.7 variant may be associated with an increased risk of death compared with other variants. More studies are needed to confirm this finding. This variant was reported in the US at the end of December 2020.
  • In South Africa, another variant of SARS-CoV-2 (known as 20H/501Y.V2 or B.1.351) emerged independently of B.1.1.7. This variant shares some mutations with B.1.1.7. Cases attributed to this variant have been detected in multiple countries outside of South Africa. This variant was reported in the US at the end of January 2021.
  • In Brazil, a variant of SARS-CoV-2 (known as P.1) emerged that was first was identified in four travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at Haneda airport outside Tokyo, Japan. This variant has 17 unique mutations, including three in the receptor binding domain of the spike protein. This variant was detected in the US at the end of January 2021.

As a priority emergency, a slew of recent research attempt to examine how those mutation-based variants result in immune escape – some immune-evading variants may dodge the immune system and ultimately trade off the global therapeutic efforts.

As another urgent agenda, the continued need for a coordinated global response to potential stigmatization evoked by emergence of variants acquires additional urgency given the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 lineage. Worryingly, just as we predicted, monikers and hashtags for those variants are widely being referred to by their country of first description. At present, to the untrained eye, those hasty designations for mutation-based variants are difficult to spell and pronounce, such as D614G, N439K, B.1.526, B.1.525, B.1.1.7, B.1.351, B.1.427, B.1.429, P.1, P.2, and so on. Moreover, the overlapping discovery of several SARS-CoV-2 variants has further led to confusing terms used to name them. Scientists warned that those variants were designated and spread by their respective first locations, and such flawed designations has already generated political backlash through travel bans and negative perceptions of these countries and their people (1). However, their appearance is so recent that the WHO is still developing and implementing standard nomenclature for those new viral lineages that does not reference a geographical location, coordinating with relevant stakeholders (2).

De novo best practices

Admittedly, understanding the way naming rules to strengthen the integrity and quality of naming practices with the original mission remains nominal rather than substantial. In May 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) released some naming conventions for the naming of new human diseases (3). Most recently, the latest statement released by the WHO Emergency Committee continued to punctuate that (4):

  • “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.”
  • “The WHO Technical Lead then shared a global overview of SARS-CoV-2 mutations and variants as well as plans to develop and implement standard nomenclature for variants that does not reference a geographical location.”

Be a bona fide author

Inevitably, mutations are changes in the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 that naturally occur over time. The looming worry is that the list of mutation-based variants would grow, and more and more epicentral countries and their people would be ultimately blamed and stigmatized in our collective future.

Arguably, scientific reports or media outlets should not refer to any variant by a specific country name, whatever the antidotes for such flawed naming convention emerge. In response to such concerns, we should reiterate that epoch-making names for SARS-CoV-2 variants are expected to be scientifically pithy and socially acceptable (5), with the faith of minimizing unintentional negative impacts on nations, economies and people (6). Accordingly, each researcher should be a bona fide author to avoid any symptom of laissez-faire and renege, just as ancient Greek physicians pledged the Hippocratic Oath. This is a positivist doctrine, not merely for naming a virus but for the vitality of science and the promotion of social progress.


  1. S. S. Abdool Karim, T. de Oliveira, G. Loots, Appropriate names for COVID-19 variants. Science. 371, 1215–1215 (2021).
  2. J. R. Mascola, B. S. Graham, A. S. Fauci, SARS-CoV-2 Viral Variants—Tackling a Moving Target. JAMA (2021). https:/
  3. WHO, World Health Organization Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases. 1–3 (2015).
  4. WHO Emergency Committee, “Statement on the sixth meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic” (2021).
  5. Z. Hu, Z. Yang, Q. Li, A. Zhang, The COVID-19 Infodemic: Infodemiology Study Analyzing Stigmatizing Search Terms. J. Med. Internet Res. 22, e22639 (2020).
  6. Y. H. Zhiwen Hu, Zhongliang Yang, Qi Li, Naming the 2019 novel coronavirus. Science. (2020).
About Sunney 116 Articles
I am currently a Professor of Zhejiang Gongshang University, Hangzhou, China.

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