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The Omicron Variant : Why Did the WHO Skip Greek Letters to Name it?

Omicron variant
Athenians wearing face masks walk along Ermou Street. Credit: Greek Reporter

The name of “Omicron,” which the World Health Organization chose for the new COVID-19 mutation has citizens around the world perplexed over the decision.

The organization has now officially named the variant that was first dubbed the “Botswana variant,” since it was first detected in that southern African country.

The omicron variant, which is apparently highly infectious, has countries all over the world bracing to curb its spread.

The name of the new variant has social media users wondering about the World Health Organization’s alphabetic system for labeling variants of the virus.

The WHO has followed the Greek alphabet when labeling certain variants of the virus, SARS-CoV-2, since May. The reason for this has been to make it easier to refer to than their scientific names.

Also, the organization refrains from naming the variants based on the country in which it was first identified as a way to avoid stigmatizing the country.

The new variant was identified last week by scientists in South Africa, and on Friday WHO chose to name the variant “omicron,” continuing its use of the Greek alphabet for naming notable variants of the virus.

However, Greeks and other social media users wondered why the organization skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet in the naming of the new coronavirus mutation.

Specifically, WHO skipped the letters ‘nu’, (νι in Greek) and ‘xi’ (ξι in Greek) and went to the next letter, o (όμικρον in Greek).

Omicron variant
Greek Alphabet. Credit: Jason Davey – Own work, Public Domain

Why did WHO skip these two letters?

Those who are very detail-oriented would have expected the organization to label the latest variant nu, which comes after mu (μι in Greek), a variant designated on August 30.

According to an Associated Press report, the World Health Organization skipped the previous two Greek letters without explanation.

Some say that the World Health Organization skipped nu and xi to avoid offending Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

In choosing to name the omicron variant, the WHO said that ‘nu’ would be too easily confounded with ‘new’ while ‘xi’ is a common last name, according to the Associated Press report.

The WHO further stated that the agency’s “best practices for naming disease suggest avoiding ‘causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.'”

It is a practice the organization had outlined back in May 2015 in order to “minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people” when naming infectious diseases.

The omicron variant marks the first time the WHO has skipped letters since it began using the Greek alphabet for coronavirus variants, however.

Alpha, beta, gamma and delta and omicron are all currently “variants of concern” according to the WHO.

The organization said that preliminary evidence “suggests an increased risk of reinfection” compared to other such variants and, so far, there is no indication that it causes more severe symptoms of the COVID-19 infections.

Even though in Greece there is currently a spike in coronavirus infections, so far the National Public Health Organization (EOPY) has not detected any omicron variant cases in the country.

The new COVID-19 variant has caused the Greek government to implement new protection measures, however, including mandating vaccinations in all those over 60.

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