The Slatest

Omicron: Why Did WHO Skip Over Two Letters in Greek Alphabet to Name Latest Variant?

A World Health Organization sign in front of a tree outside a building
The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva. Fabrice Coffrini/Getty Images

There has been lots of head-scratching since Friday, when the World Health Organization decided that B.1.1.529, the new COVID-19 variant that was first detected in South Africa, would be named omicron. In doing so, the WHO decided to skip over two letters in the Greek alphabet: nu and xi. The reasons for doing this remained a bit of a mystery until the WHO itself clarified the issue on Saturday. Turns out it was all about avoiding confusion and preventing unnecessarily offending a large group of people.

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When the WHO named the mu variant in August, nu was next in line. But the WHO decided to skip it over because officials felt the letter was too similar to the English word new, which could have led to a bit of confusion. Then came xi, but the WHO also decided to nix it because it is the same as the common last name Xi and using it would violate the organization’s guidelines to name diseases. The WHO always seeks to “avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups,” the organization said in a statement.

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The effort to avoid offending a large group of people is one of the main reasons the WHO started naming variants after letters in the Greek alphabet. Before that, only the scientific name was used, which was confusing to regular people and often led to people referring to variants by the places where they were first detected. That practice was “stigmatizing and discriminatory,” the WHO said.

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Several conservative leaders in the United States blasted the WHO for skipping the letter xi, claiming it was an effort to avoid angering Chinese President Xi Jinping and a further example of why the international agency can’t be trusted. “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?” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted. Donald Trump Jr. also commented on the issue, tweeting that as far as he was concerned “the original will always be the Xi variant.”

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