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WHO Has Used ‘Brazilian Variant’ And Other Terms In Violation Of Its Own Best Practices

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Andrew Kerr Investigative Reporter
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  • The World Health Organization has used the phrases “South African variant,” “Brazilian variant” to describe COVID-19 strains in recent months in violation of its own naming best practices.
  • The WHO issued best practices for naming new human infectious diseases in 2015 that said scientists should not use geographic terms when naming new viruses.
  • Former President Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans have been labeled racists for their use of the terms “Wuhan virus” and “China virus” when discussing COVID-19.

The World Health Organization has used the phrases “South African variant,” “Brazilian variant” and “UK variant” to describe COVID-19 strains on multiple occasions in recent months in violation of its own naming best practices.

The WHO announced best practices for naming new human infectious diseases in 2015 that said scientists should not use geographic terms when naming new viruses to avoid stigmatizing certain populations.

“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected,” WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Security Dr. Keiji Fukuda said in 2015. “We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

Despite this guidance, the WHO regional office for South-East Asia used the phrases “UK Variant,” “South African variant,” and “Brazil Variant,” in multiple COVID-19 weekly situation reports published between February and April 2021.

WHO Regional Director Takeshi Kasai used the phrases “UK variant,” “South Africa variant,” and “Brazilian variant” in a speech before the Asia-Pacific Parliamentarians Forum on Global Health in late April 2021.

And the WHO regional office for South-East Asia used the phrases “UK Variant,” “South African variant,” and “Brazil Variant,” in multiple COVID-19 weekly situation reports published between February and April 2021.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cited the 2015 guidance in February 2020 when he announced that the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, would be named COVID-19.

“Under agreed guidelines between WHO, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease,” Tedros said.

“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks,” he added.

Former President Donald Trump and other prominent Republican lawmakers were accused of being racists for referring to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” and “Wuhan Virus.” (RELATED: Why Is It Okay To Say ‘South African Variant’ But Not ‘China Virus’?)

WHO Technical Lead on COVID-19 Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said during a press conference in April that she “foolishly thought” it would be simple to develop names for the COVID-19 variants that did not refer to specific countries or geographic locations.

“I thought it could be done in a week or two and we’re now into, I think, our second month of doing this. We hope to be able to announce the nomenclature very soon because we need to make sure that any of the names that are used do not further stigmatize a person or a last name or a location inadvertently,” Van Kerkhove said. “So we’re still working on that but we do hope that countries do not say, the South African variant, including scientists.”

“Unfortunately, I hear that on many teleconferences that I’m on and we spend a lot of time talking about these virus variants that are being detected around the world,” Van Kerkhove added.

The WHO did not return a request for comment.

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