The World Health Organization (WHO) decision to name the new coronavirus variant of concern ‘Omicron’ has raised some eyebrows, as under its Greek alphabet naming scheme the next ones up should have been ‘Nu’ and then ‘Xi’.
Omicron, designated as such on Friday, is supposed to be the common name for the variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus scientifically known as B.1.1.529. The WHO lists five other “variants of concern” and two more “variants of interest,” with the last of them named ‘Mu.’
Sharp-eyed observers have noted that by using ‘Omicron’ the WHO skipped over both ‘Nu’ and the next letter in the Greek alphabet, ‘Xi’.
you don’t need to be a Greek Alphabet expert to work out why WHO would skip from Nu to Omicron, avoiding Xi…. pic.twitter.com/iTXmuyriWr
— Jim Pickard (@PickardJE) November 26, 2021
While the WHO has not issued an official explanation, an official speaking on condition of anonymity with multiple journalists said the choice was indeed deliberate: Nu would have been confused with the word “new” and Xi to “avoid stigmatizing a region,” according to a senior editor at the UK newspaper Telegraph.
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!
— Paul Nuki (@PaulNuki) November 26, 2021
A journalist with the US outlet Washington Examiner offered even more detail, quoting the official as saying that Xi was “a common last name & WHO best practices for naming disease suggest avoiding causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, & ethnic groups.”
It also happens to be the transliteration of the family name of China’s current president, Xi Jinping.
WHO on skipping Nu/Xi to dub variant Omicron: “Nu is too easily confounded with ‘new’ & Xi wasn’t used b/c it’s a common last name & WHO best practices for naming disease suggest avoiding causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, & ethnic groups.”
— Jerry Christmas 🎄🎅🏽 (@JerryDunleavy) November 26, 2021
While the first cases of the novel coronavirus were documented in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, the authorities in Beijing have rejected both the “lab leak” and “wet market” theories of its origin, suggesting instead it might have been brought over from the US.
The WHO named the virus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease caused by it Covid-19. By May 2021, the organization adopted the Greek alphabet naming convention for the variants and strains of the virus, to avoid what it called a “stigmatizing and discriminatory” practice of naming them by the place where they were first detected.