Why WHO skipped two Greek letters to name new Covid-19 variant Omicron

COVID-19 omicron strain

While choosing a name for the variants of SARS-CoV2, the World Health Organisation has so far leapt two letters of the Greek alphabet, one of which also happens to be a popular surname in China, shared also by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

WHO has been using Greek letters to refer to the most universally prevalent coronavirus variants, which otherwise carry long scientific names. It had already used 12 letters of the Greek alphabet before a new variant emerged in South Africa earlier this week. WHO selected Omicron for this one, instead of Nu or Xi, the two letters that precede it.

“Two letters were skipped – Nu and Xi – because Nu is too easily confounded with “new” and XI was not used because it is a common surname and WHO best practices for naming new diseases (developed in conjunction with FAO and OIE back in 2015) suggest avoiding ‘causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups’,” the WHO said in a statement.

Their decision to skip the two letters and use the next available one to name the latest variant had generated a lot of curiosity and interest on the internet.

In order to remove the linkage with specific countries, which was triggering a lot of name-calling and blame games, the WHO had decided on a new naming system for simple identification of the prominent variants. It chose to name them after the Greek letters. Hence, the variant that earlier used to be referred to as the ‘Indian’ got the name Delta, while the UK one was called Alpha.