Omicron: Why Did WHO Skip Over Two Letters in Greek Alphabet to Name Latest Variant? | DANIEL POLITI | SLATE | 28 Nov 2021
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.
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.
A picture taken on May 8, 2021 shows a sign of the World Health Organization (WHO) at the entrance of their headquarters in Geneva. FABRICE COFFRINI/Getty Images
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 further example 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.”