Why ‘Omicron’, Not ‘Nu’ or ‘Xi’? WHO Says Two Greek Alphabets Jumped to ‘Avoid Stigma’


The World Health Organization on Friday, in an emergency meeting, named the new coronavirus variant “Omicron”, jumping two Greek alphabets. Under its Greek-letter system, the WHO has so far been naming Covid-19 variants in an alphabetical order for ease and simplicity in nomenclature. The scientific names of the virus variants, however, continue to exist for genomic sequencing and research purposes.

Jumping two Greek alphabets, the WHO sparked curiosity about its decision to name it “Omicron” instead of “Nu” and “Xi” (the two alphabets that have been skipped), as was predicted by the world. On Saturday, an official told The Telegraph that it was done “to avoid stigmatising a region”.

Senior Editor of The Telegraph Paul Nuki took to Twitter to share the quote of his source and said, “A WHO source confirmed the letters Nu and Xi of the Greek alphabet had been deliberately avoided. Nu had been skipped to avoid confusion with the word ‘new’ and Xi had been skipped to ‘avoid stigmatising a region’, they said. All pandemics inherently political! (SIC).”

Chinese President Xi Jinping shares his name with the Greek alphabet “Xi”, therefore, making it awkward and turning it an opportunity for racism in view of the origin of the coronavirus.

A Harvard University epidemiologist, too, tweeted on the same. With a photo of all the Greek letters, Martin Kulldorff said, News of new Nu variant, but WHO is jumping the alphabet to call it Omicron, so they can avoid Xi (SIC).”

Meanwhile, US Republican Senator Ted Cruz has slammed the WHO saying, “If the WHO is this scared of the Chinese Communist Party, how can they be trusted to call them out the next time they’re trying to cover up a catastrophic global pandemic?”

What does ‘Omicron’ mean?

The Greek alphabet “Omicron” (uppercase Ο, lowercase ο) is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet and 16th in Ancient and Old Greek. In the system of Greek numerals it has a value of 70. The letter is derived from the Phoenician letter ayin, which was shaped like a circle and meant “eye” in Phoenician language. Omicron is also known as the little O.

Why Greek Letters?

On May 31, this year, the WHO assigned the “simple, easy to say and remember” labels for key variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, using letters of the Greek alphabet.

The global health body said that these labels were chosen after wide consultation and a review of many potential naming systems. “WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities. WHO will assign labels for those variants that are designated as Variants of Interest or Variants of Concern by WHO. These will be posted on the WHO website,” it said.

It added that these labels will “not replace existing scientific names”, which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research.

The WHO on Friday said the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses if specific mutations and combinations of mutations alter the behaviour of the virus, convened on Friday to assess the B.1.1.529 variant, first reported to the world health body from South Africa on November 24.

“The new #COVID19 virus variant – Omicron – has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. This is why we need to speed up our efforts to deliver on #VaccinEquity ASAP and protect the most vulnerable everywhere,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted.

Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a Variant of Concern, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron under its Greek-letter system. “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa,” the WHO said in a press release.

The variant, first reported to WHO from South Africa on Wednesday, has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. The WHO has countries to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants, submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database.

WHO said current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant. Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage, the global health organisation said.

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