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India’s federal government has not yet placed fresh orders for Covid-19 vaccines, with the country’s two vaccine manufacturers despite several vaccination centers across the country reporting shortages, the Business Standard reported, a development that comes after one of the manufacturers warned the country will continue to face a vaccine shortage till July.

Key Facts

According to the Business Standard, the government last placed an order for 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and 20 million doses of the locally-developed Covaxin shot back in March.

The two manufacturers of those shots—Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech—are expected to complete the deliveries of the last tranche of that order in the next few days, the report adds.

In an interview with the Financial Times, SII CEO Adar Poonawalla warned that India is likely to see vaccine shortages till July.

SII—the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer—is currently producing 60-70 million doses a month and it expects to ramp its capacity up to 100 million doses by July, Poonawalla said.

On being asked about why he did not expand his company’s manufacturing capacity earlier, Poonawalla noted that there were no additional orders from the Indian government, and his company did not think it needed to make more than 1 billion doses a year.

The vaccine supply crunch in India has caused a knock-on effect worldwide, as several lower and middle-income countries which were reliant on supplies from India have been affected by the country’s restrictions on vaccine exports.

Big Number

156.8 million. That’s the total number of doses of Covid-19 vaccines that have been administered across the country as of Sunday morning, according to data released by India’s health ministry. However, only 28.6 million Indians—about 2% of the country’s total population—have been fully vaccinated.


Bharat Biotech, which manufactures the locally developed Covaxin shot, currently produces about 10 million doses per month. The company has promised to expand that capacity to 100 million doses per month by September.

Key Background

It’s unclear why the federal government has not placed fresh orders of vaccines despite establishing a new vaccine procurement policy. Under this new system, the federal government will procure 50% of the total vaccines manufactured, and then distribute them to the states for free. The remaining 50% supply will be procured by the state governments themselves, along with private hospitals. The split procurement process has led to vaccine manufacturers setting up a tiered pricing system, where states have to pay the manufacturers more than double of what the federal government pays. Sales to private hospitals come at an even larger premium. Both SII and Bharat Biotech have been criticized for adapting this tiered pricing strategy, which many say could make the vaccine unaffordable for the poor. The federal government has also been criticized for allowing this to happen, with even the country’s Supreme Court questioning the policy. 

Section Title

Covid-19 second wave: Centre yet to place fresh order for vaccines (Bussiness Standard)

India’s vaccine shortage will last months, biggest manufacturer warns (Financial Times)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus


India, the current epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, has reported more than 2 million new cases and 18,000 Covid-related deaths this week alone, as a catastrophic second wave continues throughout the country, pushing hospitals and crematoriums past their breaking point. 

Key Facts

India’s Health Ministry on Saturday reported 401,993 new infections, the highest number of new cases reported yet in a single country in a 24-hour span.

Hospitals throughout the country continue to plead for medical supplies, especially oxygen.

Despite being the world’s leading producer of vaccines, only 2% of India’s population has been vaccinated. 

Key Background:

The surge in cases and hospitalizations in India has been attributed to several factors, including relaxed restrictions following a drop in infections in February, and environmental determinants such as decreased humidity in some parts of the country. Health experts believe a new variant of the coronavirus, B.1.617, often referred to as the “double mutant,” is also responsible for the rampant spread. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have received increased criticism as well. As recently as April 17, a maskless Modi campaigned at rallies with thousands of supporters who also weren’t wearing face coverings.

Chief Critic: 

“The government has failed us all,” said Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the general secretary of opposition party Indian National Congress, earlier this week. “Even those of us who oppose and fight them could not have foreseen a complete abdication of leadership and governance at a time as devastating as this.”


India’s neighbor Nepal also is in crisis, with more than 5,600 new cases on Friday, its highest one-day total since October. In a statement issued Friday, Nepal’s Health Ministry warned, “coronavirus cases have spiked beyond the capacity of the health system, and hospitals have run out of beds,” adding, ominously, “the situation is unmanageable.”

Further Reading:

India’s Daily Covid Cases Soar Past 400,000 As Crisis Deepens (Forbes) 

U.S. Promises To Send Crucial Oxygen Supplies To Covid-Ravaged India (Forbes)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus


Washington and Oregon are grappling with upticks in coronavirus infections, bucking a national trend of declining case counts, a surge some experts and local officials are interpreting as a signal that the risk of Covid-19 is still lingering even as vaccinations soar.

Key Facts

Case counts in Oregon have more than doubled over the last month, from a weekly average of 419 cases per day in early April to 873 as of Friday, though the state still is far off its peak of over 1,500 cases per day in late November, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Meanwhile in Washington, average daily infections have spiked 35% from 1,041 in early April to 1,406 at the end of the month, though still well below its December peak of over 3,500.

Over the same time period, cases nationwide fell nearly 20%, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Both states are averaging more cases per day as a proportion of their population than the United States as a whole, with Oregon and Washington reporting the nation’s 13th and 17th highest per capita daily cases respectively, according to New York Times data.

The Pacific Northwest still has a low coronavirus death rate: Oregon is averaging just two deaths per day and Washington is averaging 12, whereas the United States reports more than 700 fatalities every day nationwide.


Hospitalizations also jumped in both states last month, according to state health agencies. Oregon had 334 coronavirus patients in hospitals on Friday, a more than threefold jump from late March, and Washington’s hospitalizations increased from 286 in late March to 444 on April 11, the most recent date for which complete figures were available. 

Surprising Fact

Washington and Oregon are dealing with worse-than-average daily case counts despite having roughly average vaccination rates. Some 44.3% of Oregonians and 46.3% of Washingtonians have received at least one vaccine dose, versus 43.6% of Americans overall.

Key Background

The governors in Oregon and Washington have partially blamed more contagious new coronavirus variants for this latest surge in infections. In particular, a variant first discovered in the United Kingdom late last year is now dominant in the two states. Plus, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) says cases are spiking among younger people, most of whom still aren’t vaccinated, and experts in both states warn some residents have grown complacent and stopped following public health precautions. “We’ve let our guard down to some degree,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said Thursday.

What To Watch For

New restrictions. Brown reinstated a slate of strict social distancing measures across much of Oregon this week, shutting down indoor dining and capping other businesses’ capacity, and Inslee (D) could reinstate restrictions early next week.

Crucial Quote

“I intend to fully reopen our economy by the end of June, and the day is approaching when my emergency orders can eventually be lifted. How quickly we get there is up to each and every one of us doing our part,” Brown said in a statement Thursday.

Further Reading

Covid Surge in Oregon Shows U.S. Fight Against Pandemic Not Over (Bloomberg)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus


India reported more than 400,000 new coronavirus cases Saturday, shattering the worldwide single-day record, as a devastating second wave of the pandemic continues to ravage the country, crippling an already weakened healthcare system. 

Key Facts

After 10 consecutive days of more than 300,000 new, confirmed cases, India’s Health Ministry said Saturday that number had climbed to 401,993.

Covid-related deaths also spiked, with 3,523 fatalities reported in the previous 24 hours.

Eighteen of those deaths were attributable to a fire in a Covid-19 ward on the ground floor of a hospital in western India that also injured 31 other patients. 

Despite the alarming numbers, experts say those figures represent only a fraction of total fatalities and infections.

Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician at the University of Michigan, said daily cases could climb past 500,000 by mid-May. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, in an interview with the Indian Express newspaper, advised India to implement a temporary nationwide shutdown, which the U.S. infectious disease expert argued “could have a significant impact on the dynamics of the outbreak.”

Key Background:

The executive director of Batra Hospital hospital in New Delhi took to Twitter Saturday morning to issue an SOS, warning that he and his colleagues were in “crisis mode” due to a lack of oxygen supplies. Batra’s medical director later confirmed that eight coronavirus patients died, including one of the hospital’s own doctors, due to a lack of oxygen over the next hour before tanks were refilled. Last weekend, 26 coronavirus patients died gasping for air at Jaipur Golden Hospital in Delhi after it ran out of oxygen. Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said Thursday that 40 countries have pledged support and promised to send urgently needed oxygen-related equipment and therapeutics. The United States announced Wednesday it would offer thousands of oxygen tanks and concentrators to India as part of a $100 million aid package. The U.S. had already delivered 1,100 refillable oxygen cylinders, the White House said in a statement. India opened coronavirus vaccinations to all adults on Saturday, but the limited supply of the vaccine and access have hampered the rollout. In addition, the University of Exeter’s Dr. Bharat Pankhania told the Associated Press that “ample evidence” shows “having people wait in a long, crowded, disorderly queue could itself be a source of infection.” As of Saturday, only 2.1% of India’s population had been vaccinated. 


White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday, citing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that the United States would begin restricting travel from India next week. The restrictions “will be implemented in light of extraordinarily high COVID-19 caseloads and multiple variants circulating in India,” Psaki said.

Big Number:

211,853. That’s the total number of reported Covid-related deaths in India as of Saturday morning. 

Further Reading:

Haunting Images From The Covid-19 Crisis In India (Forbes) 

Dr. Anthony S Fauci on India’s Covid Crisis: ‘Shut down the country for a few weeks’ (Indian Express) 

U.S. Promises To Send Crucial Oxygen Supplies To Covid-Ravaged India (Forbes)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus


A Houston-area nurse is the latest health-care worker to claim she lost her job over refusing to get a Covid vaccine—an issue that could grow more common across industries as offices reopen and employers start mandating vaccinations.

Key Facts

Former Houston Methodist nurse Michelle Fuentes told KRIV-TV she was fired and escorted out of the hospital after refusing to meet the hospital’s deadline to get vaccinated.

Fuentes said she was waiting for a “little bit more research to be done” on the vaccines and had turned in her two-week’s notice after refusing to get one, but was terminated before her planned resignation date.

Jennifer Bridges, another nurse at Houston Methodist, which is the first hospital in the country to require all employees to be vaccinated, told KHOU-TV she plans to file a lawsuit against the hospital challenging the mandate.

Some smaller health-care and nursing facilities have already had vaccine requirements in place.

Last month, Desiree Pelletier had a similar story, telling WPMT-TV she was being fired from her job at a Pennsylvania behavioral health center for refusing the vaccine.

In January, workers at a Rock County, Wisconsin-owned nursing home who refused a vaccine were laid off after being told vaccinations were “a requirement for all staff,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

What To Watch For

An Arizona State-Rockefeller Foundation poll released Thursday found 63% of employers it surveyed planned to require proof of vaccination, with 42% saying vaccinations would be needed to return to a physical workplace and 35% saying disciplinary actions could be taken for those who refused a vaccine, including possible termination. The survey polled 957 workplaces in 24 industries—most of which were businesses with over 250 employees.

Key Background

Legal experts generally say employees can be fired for refusing to get vaccinated. But there are caveats. They could file for a religious or medical exemption. But that becomes trickier for health-care workers, since their employers may be able to prove not getting vaccinated would create an undue burden on the workplace. And there are also questions over whether employees can be fired for not taking a vaccine that hasn’t technically been approved by the FDA, since all three vaccines being administered in the U.S. have only been granted emergency use authorization. Top health officials, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, have assured Americans that coronavirus vaccines are safe and the only tool that will be able to end the pandemic for good. Data has also shown Covid vaccines are safe and effective.


Vaccine hesitancy appears like it will be a big problem when it comes to ending the pandemic. Most Americans who haven’t been vaccinated yet don’t plan on doing so, according to the latest Household Pulse Survey from the Census Bureau. And vaccine hesitancy appears heavily skewed along partisan lines. Republicans and Trump voters have consistently polled among the groups with the highest levels of vaccine hesitancy.

Further Reading

Here Are The Groups Who Don’t Want A Vaccine—And Trump Voters Are Near Top (Forbes)

Most U.S. companies will require proof of Covid vaccination from employees, survey finds (CNBC)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus


Russia has produced a batch of the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine for animals, the country’s agriculture regulator announced Friday, which could help prevent dangerous mutations emerging, protect vulnerable animals and support animal-driven industries, such as mink fur farming, that have been crippled by the pandemic.

Key Facts

17,000 doses of the Carnivac-Cov vaccine have been produced at Russia’s Federal Center for Animal Health, the agriculture regulator said Friday. 

The initial batch will be distributed across several Russian regions, it said, with companies from countries including Germany, Poland, Kazakhstan, Thailand and South Korea having expressed interest in purchasing future doses.

It is unclear what animals are expected to receive the first batch—Forbes has reached out to the regulator for comment—though the vaccine was registered in March after tests showed responses in dogs, cats, mink and foxes.    

The watchdog said it was in the process of preparing an application to register the vaccine in other countries around the world, notably the European Union.  

Key Background

While a vaccine for animals may not seem like a priority in the midst of a pandemic where many humans do not have access to them, safeguarding animal populations is an important aspect of long-term disease control. The virus responsible for Covid-19 is, experts believe, highly likely to have spilled over into humans from animals, which has happened with many major diseases including influenza (flu), Ebola and HIV. Humans are also capable of spreading the disease to animals—including pets, like cats and dogs, and agricultural animals, like mink—where dangerous mutations can possibly develop and spread back into humans.

Surprising Fact

The U.K., which monitors cases of Covid-19 in some animals, reported two instances of cats seeming to have caught the virus from their owners. One, a four-month-old kitten, died after developing breathing difficulties. While there is no evidence that domestic animals can transmit the virus to humans, scientists warned of the need to monitor transmission in case they can act as a “viral reservoir.” 

Further Reading

Kitten Dies After Catching Covid As Study Uncovers More Evidence Of Human-To-Cat Transmission (Forbes)

Can Dogs, Cats, Pets Get And Spread Covid-19 Coronavirus? (Forbes)

More Than 200 People Catch Mink-Related Covid-19 In Denmark Since June, Prompting World Health Organization To Investigate (Forbes)

Denmark Wants To Exhume ‘Zombie Mink’ Rising From Mass Graves While Scientists Warn Of Permanent Covid-19 Pandemic Risk (Forbes)

Russia Is Developing A Covid-19 Vaccine For Pets And Mink (F0rbes)

‘World’s First’ Animal Covid-19 Vaccine Registered In Russia – Here’s What That Means (Forbes)

David Quammen: How Animal-Borne Infections Spill Over To Humans (NPR)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus


Biotech company Moderna announced it will increase its investment in Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing, enabling it to make up to 3 billion doses of its mRNA vaccine next year.

Key Facts

The company says it will expand its manufacturing capacity in the vaccine-making facilities that it owns and partners with in Switzerland, Spain and the U.S.

The money for the investment is coming from the company’s cash balance, which according to its most recent SEC filing is $5.25 billion.

Moderna is also upping its previous supply forecast for this year, and says that it expects to have between 800 million and 1 billion doses manufactured by the end of 2021.

The company added that it is working on a new formulation of its vaccine that could be stable at normal refrigeration temperatures for up to three months. 

Crucial Quote

“As we follow the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, we believe that there will continue to be significant need for our mRNA COVID-19 vaccine and our variant booster candidates into 2022 and 2023,”  CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a press release.

Key Background

Millions of people around the world have already been vaccinated with Moderna’s mRNA-based Covid-19 shot. But recent studies have shown that the vaccines will likely be less effective after twelve months, and aren’t as protective against some of the more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2. Many of these 3 billion doses will likely include booster shots, as well as a new vaccine that Moderna is developing specifically against Covid-19 variants. Earlier this week, Moderna struck a deal with pharma giant Sanofi to manufacture 200 million doses of its vaccine in the U.S. 

What To Watch For

Moderna has been criticized for selling most doses of its vaccine to high-income countries and shutting out countries with smaller markets. Unlike Pfizer, Moderna has not yet reached an agreement with COVAX, a coalition committed to equitable vaccine access around the world, to distribute its vaccine to low-income countries. A spokesperson from Moderna says that the company is in discussions with COVAX, and that a vaccine that can be refrigerated for up to three months may help distribution in lower-income countries.

Further Reading

How Vaccine Companies Are Battling Covid-19 Variants (Forbes)

Nearly 100 Million Americans Have Received A Covid-19 Vaccine As FDA Allows Moderna To Boost Doses Per Vial (Forbes)

What’s Next For Moderna Post-Covid-19: CEO Stéphane Bancel Details mRNA Pipeline (Forbes)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus

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While some industries were devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic, funding kept flowing to startups using artificial intelligence to solve business challenges. Several healthcare companies made the annual Forbes AI 50 list, which identifies some of the most promising companies in the space. Komodo Health uses algorithms to help identify patients for clinical trials and track drug effectiveness after it hits the market. examines CT images to try to reduce the number of stroke victims who don’t receive the right treatment in time. Verge Genomics combines AI with human genome data for drug discovery, and its candidate to treat Lou Gehrig’s disease will enter clinical trials next year. 

New York-Based Digital Health Startups Raised $2.4 Billion In The First Quarter Of 2021

New York City has become a hotbed of digital health investment, with 64 companies raising a record high of $2.4 billion in venture funding in the first quarter of 2021, according to a new report. Last year, it took nine months to achieve the same level of funding. While many of the companies were well capitalized before the pandemic, Covid-19 necessitated scaling up new solutions. Virtual care and digital pharmacy startup Ro had the biggest funding round at $500 million, followed by healthcare billing startup Cedar. Read more here.


Health insurer Humana said it would buy the remaining 60% stake of Kindred Healthcare’s home care business in a deal valued at $8.1 billion.

Cash-pay digital health startup Sesame raised $24 million in funding for its in-person and telehealth services. 

A new report predicts colorectal cancer will become the leading cause of cancer death in people aged between 20 and 49 by the year 2040.

Coronavirus Updates

India continues to be hit hard by a massive surge of Covid-19 cases. The country’s total death toll passed 200,000 Wednesday, and experts say this is likely a big underestimate. The country is trying to roll out Covid-19 vaccines, but on the first day where registration was open for all Indians over the age of 18, the online portal quickly crashed. Meanwhile, other countries have started sending foreign aid to help with the surge. The U.K. has sent hundreds of ventilators and oxygen containers, and more supplies from America, Germany and Australia are expected to arrive soon. 

Pharma Companies Expand Access To India

Pharmaceutical companies are working to get medicine into the hands of Covid-19 patients in India. Here’s how they are expanding access to needed drugs. Read more here.

Other Coronavirus News

Yesterday popular podcaster Joe Rogan said that young people shouldn’t get a Covid-19 vaccine; Dr. Anthony Fauci says that’s incorrect. 

Are these extremely rare cases of myocarditis linked to mRNA vaccines? Here’s what we do and don’t know. 

Your brain could trick you into thinking that vaccines are riskier than they actually are. Here’s how you can stay unbiased. 

Using places to describe viruses, like the “India Variant,” can lead to racism and xenophobia. 

Parents have been exhausted for the last year; here’s how they can start to heal.

Across Forbes

Family-Owned Industrial Conglomerate Standard Industries To Buy Chemical Giant W.R. Grace For $7 Billion

Venture Funding Hit A Record In 2020. For Women Founders, It Dried Up.

Tyrannosaurus Rex Was Not A Fast Runner, More A Slow Walker, Simulation Shows

What Else We are Reading

India’s massive COVID surge puzzles scientists (Nature)

US lifts barriers to prescribing addiction treatment drug (Associated Press)

Cuomo Aides Spent Months Hiding Nursing Home Death Toll (The New York Times)

The current surge of Covid cases in India continues to strain the country. Over the past week, the country has been reporting over 300,000 new cases per day, and over 200,000 people have died from the disease. The sharply rising case counts are overwhelming hospitals, which face shortages of equipment and supplemental oxygen

To help contain the crisis, countries, organizations and companies have pledged medical equipment to the country. Others are promising to donate vaccines and the raw materials to manufacture them. But while vaccines may help contain the spread of Covid, they can’t help currently suffering patients. To that end, several pharmaceutical companies are working to expand access to their Covid treatments in India. 

On Monday, Gilead Sciences announced that it is donating 450,000 doses of its antiviral drug remdesivir to India, as well as providing support to its local manufacturing partners in India. The company said that it would also work with its generics licensees outside of India to expand capacity to make up for doses produced in India that will no longer be available for export. 

Remdesivir is an antiviral drug, and is the only fully FDA-approved treatment for Covid-19 in the U.S. It’s been authorized for emergency use in India and other countries for hospitalized patients. Clinical trials under randomized control conditions in the United States showed that remdesivir reduced time to recovery for patients, reducing hospital stays by several days. A different study, conducted by the World Health Organization, did not show a reduced time to recovery, but that investigation used a less rigorous methodology.

On Tuesday, pharmaceutical giant Merck announced that it has entered into licensing agreements with five generic pharmaceutical manufacturers in India for the production of its antiviral treatment molnupiravir, which the company is developing with Florida-based Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. The drug is currently undergoing a phase 3 clinical trial in the United States, where it is expected to apply for emergency use authorization in September or October. The drug is not yet authorized for use in India, but manufacturing licenses are geared towards making doses available if regulators give it an okay. The company also said it would be donating over $5 million worth of equipment, masks and other supplies to India.

Molnupiravir is an antiviral pill that is aimed at patients who test positive for Covid but are not yet hospitalized. In its phase 2 clinical trial, Merck found that a lower percentage of patients who received the drug were hospitalized or died compared to the control group, and that the amount of virus present in each patient was lower for the group that took the drug. 

So far, the best clinical treatments for Covid-19 patients have proven to be antibody therapies. These treatments have been shown to reduce hospitalizations among patients with symptomatic cases of Covid by over 70%, and have also been shown to prevent Covid infections when administered prophylactically. In the United States, both Eli Lilly and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have received emergency authorization for their antibody cocktails to be administered to Covid patients. Neither has yet been authorized for use in India, however, but both pharmaceutical companies are working on it. 

A spokesperson for Roche, which is manufacturing and distributing Regeneon’s antibody cocktail internationally, said in an email that it “is urgently working with local health care authorities to accelerate an emergency use authorisation.” Once that authorization has been received, that “would enable the import of globally manufactured product batches to the country as soon as possible.”

In addition to its antibody cocktail, Lilly has also received authorization from the FDA for administration of its rheumatoid arthritis drug, baricticinib, in combination with remdesivir for hospitalized Covid patients. A spokesperson for the company said in an email that it’s still in discussion with India’s regulators about authorizing its treatments. They went on to say that the company is “in active dialogue with the regulatory authority and government of India to determine if a donation of Lilly’s COVID-19 treatments – including both our neutralizing antibody therapies and baricitinib – would be appropriate to potentially provide relief.” 

As Coronavirus evolves, new strains are being named after where they were first found, such as referring to B.1.617 as the ‘Indian variant‘.

Naming variants after places might seem harmless but it’s actually harmful, creating stigma that can lead to racism.

The damage caused by using geographic locations as labels has been demonstrated by former US president Donald Trump, who referred to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” — widely regarded as racist language.

Although SARS-CoV-2 probably originated in China, Trump’s argument that “Chinese” is merely linguistic shorthand for “it comes from China” ignores an important point: words matter.

People should be careful with how they use language because certain words can have dire consequences. “Chinese virus” isn’t an innocuous phrase and evidence suggests that it caused a dramatic rise in racial slurs and physical violence against Asian-Americans, inspiring the hashtag ‘Stop Asian Hate’.

Social Stigma

The problem with naming any germ or disease after a location is that it attaches a stigma to people from that place.

Worse, that stigmatization is then extended — through racist stereotypes — to anyone who ‘looks like’ they come from the same location, which is probably how the phrase “Chinese virus” led to hate crimes against those who appear ‘Asian’.

If a scary new strain of Coronavirus emerged in China, calling it a “Chinese variant” would be no different from saying a “Chinese virus”. Just as it’s not acceptable to name the SARS-CoV-2 species after a country, it’s equally unacceptable to use a country’s name to label a variant.

So how should people refer to Covid-19 variants?

One alternative to geographic labels is scientific terms. Many scientists use a system of naming (or ‘nomenclature’) based on evolution, by comparing genetic sequences to construct a family tree then labelling each branch or ‘lineage’. B.1.1.7 is the lineage/variant first isolated in the UK, for example.

Using an alternative naming system is necessary not only to prevent racism, it could be crucial to stopping the pandemic, as a country that becomes stigmatized for being the ‘source’ of a dangerous new variant might then be discouraged from revealing the emergence of other variants.

As Oliver Pybus, an evolutionary biologist who co-developed the lineage-based naming system, told the journal Nature, “The last thing we want to do is dissuade any particular place from reporting they’ve got a new concerning variant — in fact, we want to do the opposite.”

Fear of being stigmatized has already prompted politicians to put pressure on scientists to avoid mentioning the nation where a variant is first isolated. At the request of South Africa’s President and health minister, bioinformatics researcher Tulio de Oliveira originally labelled B.1.351 — popularly known as the ‘South African variant‘ — as N501Y.V2, after its most notable mutation.

In an article published in Science, de Oliveira and colleagues pointed out another issue with using locations for labels: a new variant that’s initially detected in a particular country didn’t necessarily emerge there.

As the article explains, “It is not known whether patient zero of each variant was a resident of or visitor to that country, and all variants have been identified well beyond the first countries in which they were identified.” Names can therefore wrongly assign blame to the place where a variant was first found.

Blame Game

Naming Coronavirus variants hasn’t seemed like a major problem because, so far, most names have been associated with a relatively large area, an entire country.

As a consequence, the blame for ‘allowing’ a new variant to emerge hasn’t been directed at any particular group of people, but deflected toward a government and its response to Covid-19 through measures like lockdowns and travel bans.

India is currently experiencing a huge surge in Covid cases. While that might partly be due to a new strain with two mutations (a so-called ‘double mutant‘) that seems to help it spread more easily, the wave of infection is also being blamed on human behavior.

Critics can focus the blame when cases spike in a small area, such as a city. In such instances, people start to speculate on the cause of that surge, jumping to conclusions about the behavior of the area’s residents.

One well-known example of blaming the residents occurred in November 2020. When Swale in Kent became the worst-hit area in the UK, a local official implied that the rise in cases was caused by “wilful disregard of the rules” on wearing face masks and social distancing. We now know, however, that the surge in infections was due to the emergence of B.1.1.7.

Blame is most likely to lead to racism due to the ethnic composition of a population. If a region consists mainly of white people, such as Kent in South-East England (91% white-British ethnicity), race won’t be a factor. Unconscious stereotypes — caused by associating a location with race — only become clear if an area includes a large proportion of people of color.

That association between location and race could then be influenced by an area’s size. Whereas countries are often large enough to contain an ethnically-diverse population, smaller areas — like cities — can consist of an ethnic ‘minority’ that actually makes up the vast majority of residents.

Now imagine that a Covid variant emerged somewhere with a predominantly black population, such as Detroit, which has been called a “Coronavirus hotspot” and where 80% of residents describe their race as ‘black or African-American. If a new strain were labelled the ‘Detroit variant’, it would condemned as racist.

If that hypothetical scenario sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that Covid-19 variants are already being named after small geographic areas: B.1.1.7 is also known as the ‘Kent variant’, for example, while the B.1.526 strain has been called a ‘New York variant‘ (interestingly, not ‘American variant’).

While it’s possible that the media might nickname a variant like a movie sequel — like ‘UK variant 2’ — such names are unlikely to stick because they’re not very catchy.

The US seems more sensitive to racism against people of African ancestry (and arguably with good reason, given the history of slavery and police brutality), which might explain why outrage highlighted by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has seemed greater than the anger prompted by racism against Asian-Americans.

Sadly, it might take a virus to become associated with African-Americans for the public to understand why naming Covid variants after places can lead to racism.

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus