Fact check: Why WHO chose ‘omicron’ for the new variant

The name of a newly identified variant of the coronavirus has some social media users scratching their heads about the World Health Organization’s labeling system for certain versions.

On Friday, the WHO chose to name the variant, first reported to the agency by scientists in South Africa, “omicron” – continuing to use the Greek alphabet to name the animals. Notable variation of the virus.

However, social media users correctly noted that the organization omitted two letters in doing so, leading to questions about the move.

Here’s what we know about how omicron’s name ends.


The World Health Organization labeled the new strain as the “omicron” variant, omitting the “nu” and “xi” without explanation.


The WHO on Friday named “omicron” for a new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The agency also considers this a “worrying variation.”

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

WHO has been following the Greek alphabet when it comes to labeling several variants of the virus, SARS-CoV-2, since May. It says the system allows variants to be called simply by their scientific name, and it helps prevent people from referring to variants by the location where they were discovered and creating a stigma.

Many had expected the agency to label the newest nu variant, after mu, a designated variant on August 30.

Instead, the WHO omitted nu as well as xi, the next letter in Greek – a move pointed out by many social media users, while some questioned whether it was to avoid insult Chinese leader Xi Jinping or not.

In a statement provided to the AP, the WHO said it omitted nu for clarity and xi to avoid causing general outrage.

The WHO says “‘Nu’ is too easily confused with ‘new’ and ‘Xi’ is not used because it is a common surname” for a cultural, social, national, regional, occupational or ethnic group. “‘

Those best practices were outlined in a document issued by the agency in May 2015. The organization said at the time that it wanted to “minimize unnecessary negative impacts on countries, economies and people” when naming infectious diseases.

This is the first time the organization has omitted letters since it began using the Greek alphabet for coronavirus variants; it previously used the alphabet to label 12 other people. Alpha, beta, gamma and delta are now “variants of interest” like omicron. Lambda and mu are assigned less severe “variant of interest”. Six other letters have been assigned to variants previously of interest.

The omicron variant appears to have multiple mutations in the mutant protein of the coronavirus, which may affect how easily it spreads to humans. The WHO said on Friday that preliminary evidence “shows an increased risk of reinfection” compared with other variants of interest.

But scientists are still in the process of studying exactly what the genetic changes mean, to see if the variant is more transmissible or more deadly. So far, there is no indication that the variant causes more severe disease.


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