WHO changes monkeypox variant names linking it to Africa, complete name change on the cards

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A medical laboratory technician shows a suspected monkeypox sample at the microbiology laboratory of La Paz Hospital on June 06, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
A medical laboratory technician shows a suspected monkeypox sample at the microbiology laboratory of La Paz Hospital on June 06, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
  • The WHO is in the process of finding a new name for monkeypox through public consultations.
  • Names of variants linking it to Africa have been changed.
  • The organisation changed the names to avoid causing offence and to minimise any negative impact.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is moving away from monkeypox variant names that have given the disease an African stereotype since the late 1950s.

The disease was named monkeypox after it was discovered in 1958. The known variants were named after their geographical endemic status.

The known variants at the time of discovery were the Congo Basin (Central African) clade and West African clade. The Congo Basin variant was found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon, while the West African clade was mostly found in Nigeria. 

Under the new naming regime, the Congo Basin variant will be known as Clade One and what was formerly the West African variant will be referred to as Clade Two and it has two subclades.

A clade is a group of organisms from a common ancestor.

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"The proper naming structure will be represented by a Roman numeral for the clade and a lower-case alphanumeric character for the subclades.

"Thus, the new naming convention comprises Clade I, Clade IIa, and Clade IIb, with the latter referring primarily to the group of variants largely circulating in the 2022 global outbreak. The naming of lineages will be proposed by scientists as the outbreak evolves. Experts will be reconvened as needed," the WHO said in a statement.

The name changes came after a group of global experts were convened "as part of ongoing efforts to align the names of the monkeypox disease, virus, and variants - or clades - with current best practices".

Although monkeypox ceased being known as an African problem, being found in other parts of the world, it was identified with its "African" nature, something that was offensive to many communities. 

For one, the use of pictures of black people in cases that occurred in Europe was not taken lightly.

With that in mind, the WHO said the renaming of monkeypox variants sought to "avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups, and minimise any negative impact on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare".

The changing of the disease's name from monkeypox would happen through an open consultation process, it added. 

The International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses, which is in charge of naming virus species, is now working on coming up with a new name for the monkeypox virus.


The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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