WHO skipped two Greek alphabet letters in naming coronavirus variant

WHO said it skipped nu for clarity and xi to avoid causing offence generally while naming the new Covid variant Omicron


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Published: Sun 28 Nov 2021, 3:23 AM

CLAIM: The World Health Organisation skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet, nu and xi, when naming omicron, a newly identified variant of the coronavirus.

THE FACTS: The WHO on Friday gave the name “omicron” to a new variant of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. The agency also deemed it a “variant of concern”.

Omicron was first reported to the UN health agency by scientists in South Africa and has been identified in several other countries as well.

The WHO has followed the Greek alphabet when naming variants of the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and many people had expected the agency to label the latest variant nu, which comes after mu, a variant designated on August 30. Instead, the WHO skipped over nu as well as xi, the next Greek letter in line — a move that many users on social media pointed out, while some questioned whether it was to avoid offending Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

In a statement provided to the AP, the WHO said it skipped nu for clarity and xi to avoid causing offence generally.

“‘Nu’ is too easily confounded with ‘new,’ and ‘Xi’ was not used because it is a common last name,” the WHO said, adding that the agency’s “best practices for naming disease suggest avoiding ‘causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups’”.

Those best practices were outlined in a May 2015 document issued by the agency.

This is the first time the organisation has skipped letters when naming coronavirus variants. Alpha, beta, gamma and delta are all currently “variants of concern” like omicron. Others, such as lambda, kappa and mu, are or were at one time given the less serious “variant of interest” designation.

The omicron variant appears to have a high number of mutations in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people. The WHO said Friday that preliminary evidence “suggests an increased risk of reinfection” compared to other variants of concern.

But scientists are still in the process of researching exactly what the genetic changes mean, to know if the variant is more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no indication the variant causes more severe disease.

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