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Checking the facts: why the WHO chose “omicron” for the new variant

The name of a newly identified variant of the coronavirus has had its head scratching on the World Health Organization’s system to label certain versions of the virus.

The WHO chose on Friday to nickname the variant, first reported to the agency by scientists in South Africa, “omicron” – continuing its use of the Greek alphabet to name notable variants of the virus.

Social media users correctly noted, however, that the organization skipped two letters, leading to questions about the move.

Here’s what we know about how omicron ended up with its name.


The World Health Organization called the new strain an “omicron” variant, skipping “naked” and “xi” without explanation.


The WHO on Friday gave the name “omicron” to a new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The agency also viewed it as a “variant of concern.”

Omicron was first reported to the United Nations health agency by scientists in South Africa and has been identified in several other countries as well, the Associated Press reported.

The WHO has followed the Greek alphabet when labeling certain variants of the virus, SARS-CoV-2, since May. He said the system allows variants to be referred to in a simpler way than by their scientific names, and that it helps prevent people from referring to variants by where they were detected and from create stigma.

Many people expected the agency to label the latest variant nude, which comes after mu, a variant designated on August 30.

Instead, the WHO jumped naked along with xi, the next Greek letter online – a move that many social media users have highlighted, while some questioned whether this was to avoid offending the Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

In a statement provided to the AP, the WHO said it ignored nude for clarity and xi to avoid offending in general.

“‘Nu’ is too easily confused with ‘new’ and ‘Xi’ has not been used because it is a common surname,” WHO said, adding that the agency’s “best practices for naming diseases suggest to avoid “offending anyone cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.

These best practices were described in a May 2015 document published by the agency. The organization said at the time that it wanted to “minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people” by naming infectious diseases.

This is the first time the organization has skipped letters since it began using the Greek alphabet for variants of the coronavirus; he has already used the alphabet to label 12 others. Alpha, beta, gamma, and delta are all currently “variants of concern” like omicron. Lambda and mu are given the less serious designation of “variant of interest”. Six other letters have been attributed to old variants of interest.

The omicron variant appears to have a high number of mutations in the coronavirus spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to humans. The WHO said on Friday that preliminary evidence “suggests an increased risk of reinfection” compared to other variants of concern.

But scientists are still researching exactly what the genetic changes mean, whether the variant is more heritable or dangerous. So far, there is no indication that the variant causes more serious disease.


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