The Inherently Political Task of Assigning Appropriate Greek Letters to COVID-19 Variants

Greek letters Greek alphabet Omicron

The quest to assign a letter of the Greek alphabet to the newly identified COVID-19 variant ‘B.1.1.529' that has spread in South Africa has proven that "all pandemics are inherently political."

A source from the World Health Organisation has confirmed that the Greek letters Nu and Xi of the Greek alphabet have been deliberately avoided.

Nu had been skipped to avoid confusion with the word 'new' whilst Xi had been skipped to "avoid stigmatising a region," they said.

As well as being a letter of the Greek alphabet it also happens to be the surname of Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

It has been suggested the name Xi was avoided to prevent angering Mr Jinping.

The new variant, described by health experts as ‘the most concerning that they have seen’ as it has double the number of mutations, including some with evading immune responses as the Delta variant, was finally assigned the politically correct Greek letter ‘Omicron’ on Friday.

In June this year, the WHO announced that, from that point forward, coronavirus variants with clunky, alphanumeric names such as the highly virulent virulent strain B.1.1.529 that is currently spreading in South Africa, would be assigned letters from the Greek alphabet in a bid to simplify discussion and pronunciation while avoiding stigma.

The WHO revealed the new names amid criticism that those given by scientists were too complicated, saying that the letters of the Greek alphabet would be easier to say and to remember.

The newly assigned Omicron joins earlier variants named for Greek letters, including the Alpha variant first identified in the United Kingdom; the Beta variant first identified in South Africa; the Gamma variant first identified in Brazil; and the Delta variant first identified in India. Additional variants include Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda, and Mu.

“Nu” and “Xi” are the only letters of the Greek alphabet that have been skipped to date by the WHO which has, since the beginning of the pandemic, been extremely sensitive about expressing deference toward China, where COVID-19 began in the province of Wuhan.

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