WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Why WHO skipped ‘Xi’ in naming Omicron variant

The naming system is simple, easy to say and remember because it follows letters of the Greek alphabet.

In Summary

•WHO has said Omicron is potentially dangerous, poses a high risk of infection surges around the globe and could lead to severe consequences in some regions.

•Tarik told The Times that in assigning names, WHO avoids “causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”

The WHO tracking page shows there are now 13 different variants with each having a Greek letter.
The WHO tracking page shows there are now 13 different variants with each having a Greek letter.

Looking at the Greek alphabet, you can easily pick the next Covid-19 variant name.

The new Covid-19 variant announced by South Africa on November 23 should have been called ‘Nu’ or ‘Xi’, but these two names were skipped. Why?

The naming system announced by the World Health Organisation last May is simple, easy to say and remember because it follows letters of the Greek alphabet.

For instance, the variant that emerged in the United Kingdom in September last year is no longer called the UK strain or the difficult to remember B.1.1.7.

It was assigned the first letter of the Greek alphabet, Alpha.

The WHO tracking page shows there are now 12 different variants with each having a Greek letter.

When the South African scientists announced the new variant, it should easily have been named “Nu”, the 13th letter of the Greek alphabet.

The WHO explained that ‘Nu' was skipped because it could be mistaken as the English word 'new.’

This means the variant sequenced in South Africa should then have been named according to the next letter – Xi.

WHO has said this variant is potentially dangerous, poses a high risk of infection surges around the globe and could lead to severe consequences in some regions.

There is no way it was not going to be named Xi, the name of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“‘Nu’ is too easily confounded with ‘new’. And ‘Xi’ was not used because it is a common last name,” said Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO spokesman, according to New York Times.

So it was named Omicron, the 15th letter of the alphabet.

Tarik told The Times that in assigning names, WHO avoids “causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”

Viruses constantly change through mutation. When a virus has one or more new mutations it’s called a variant of the original virus.

The WHO may designate variants as a Variant of Concern or a Variant of Interest due to shared attributes and characteristics that may require public health action.

WHO says a Variant of Interest (VOI) has genetic changes that are predicted or known to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity, immune escape, diagnostic or therapeutic escape.

It must have been identified to cause significant community transmission or multiple Covid-19 clusters, in multiple countries with increasing relative prevalence alongside increasing number of cases over time, or other apparent epidemiological impacts to suggest an emerging risk to global public health. 

Variants of Concern (VOC) is a variant that meets the definition of a VOI and has been demonstrated to: Increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology;  Increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation; or

Decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics.