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Why WHO skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet in naming Omicron

<i>roxanabalint/Getty Images</i><br/>The Greek alphabet has 24 letters.
roxanabalint/Getty Images
The Greek alphabet has 24 letters.

By Faith Karimi, CNN

The naming of the new coronavirus variant Omicron is causing some confusion.

Since May the World Health Organization has been using letters of the Greek alphabet, in order, to name coronavirus variants. Delta was the most dominant one, followed by eight others — including Epsilon, Iota and Lambda — that so far have mostly fizzled out.

So after a new variant with the unwieldy scientific name of B.1.1.529 was discovered last week in South Africa, observers might have expected the WHO to name it after the next Greek letter on the list: Nu.

But the health agency skipped Nu, along with the letter after that — Xi — and instead went straight to Omicron — the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet.

“Nu is too easily confounded with ‘new’ and Xi was not used because it is a common surname,” the organization explained in an emailed statement to CNN.

“And WHO best practices for naming new diseases suggest ‘avoiding causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.’ “

Though pronounced differently, the Greek letter Xi bears a similarity to the Chinese surname Xi — as in Chinese leader Xi Jinping — fueling speculation that may have played a role in the WHO’s skipping the name.

China has sought to distance itself from the Covid-19 pandemic and has pushed back against assertions that the virus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Scientific names for diseases “can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting,” WHO said in May. “As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

To avoid these stigmas, WHO has been avoiding associating viruses with specific regions of the world. Some believe use of the terms “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese virus” to describe Covid-19 have led to persecution of people of Asian descent.

On its website, WHO said it’s identified best practices for the naming of new human diseases, “with the aim to minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare.”

So that’s how this latest coronavirus variant became named Omicron.

And if even newer variants emerge, there are nine more letters in the Greek alphabet. The next one is Pi.

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