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How Viruses should be Named in the Wake of Multiple Coronavirus Strains

When scientists announced that a variant called B.1.315 — two digits removed from the variant first seen in South Africa — was spreading in the United States, South Africa’s health minister “got quite confused” between that and B.1.351, said Tulio de Oliveira, a geneticist at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Durban and a member of the W.H.O.’s working group. “We have to come up with a system that not only evolutionary biologists can understand,” he said. With no easy alternatives at hand, people have resorted to calling B.1.351 “the South African variant.” But Dr. de Oliveira pleaded with his colleagues to avoid the term. The potential harms are grave enough to have dissuaded some countries from coming forward when a new pathogen is detected within their borders. Geographical names also quickly become obsolete: B.1.351 is in 48 countries now, so calling it the South African variant is absurd, Dr. de Oliveira added. And the practice could distort science. It is not entirely clear that the variant arose in South Africa: It was identified there in large part thanks to the diligence of South African scientists, but branding it as that country’s variant could mislead other researchers into overlooking its possible path into South Africa from another country that was sequencing fewer coronavirus genomes.