Coronavirus

Why did WHO skip letter Xi and name Omicron the new covid variant?

In the method of naming covid-19 variants, it should have been 'Nu' as the variant which is causing all the concern, but the WHO decided against the name.

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Why did WHO skip letter Xi and name Omicron the new covid variant?
COOPER INVEEN Reuters

Fans of the Ancient Greek alphabet were aghast at the latest covid-19 variant, not least because of the apparent mistake in leaving out two letters, Nu and Xi, when naming it.

Omicron, as it is now known, was chosen very deliberately, and very much in line with the World Health Organization (WHO) naming methods, making sure that names are easy to understand, while also being culturally sensitive. This latter point, however, has drawn the ire of American conservatives who see the move as pandering to China and its Premier Xi Jinping. The change stems back from the beginning of the outbreak and the original moniker of covid-19 as the 'China Virus'.

So why were Nu and Xi skipped?

“‘Nu’ is too easily confounded with ‘new,’ and ‘Xi’ was not used because it is a common last name,” a spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic, said on Saturday in an emailed response to the New York Times' questions about skipping the two letters.

The organization’s policy, he continued, requires “avoiding causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”

This would link with the line from the Chinese government when the outbreak began, urging countries to stop calling the virus 'Chinese'. Chinese spokesperson Geng Shuang said last year, "[Clear thinking Americans] believe that calling it "Chinese virus" will expose certain people under the risk of racism and violence. The novel coronavirus affects everyone and needs to be tackled with joint efforts, instead of fear-mongering in a xenophobic way."

Why has this been 'controversial'?

Originally, the WHO did not explain why covid-19 variant names went from Mu to Omicron, and the move got anti-China politicians up-in-arms.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz took to Twitter to attack the WHO.

The son of former President Trump, Donald Trump Jr., also used the platform to attack the Chinese.

China recently announced it would be delivering another one billion doses of covid-19 vaccines to the African continent in a bid to drive up vaccination rates. Patent restrictions have prevented African nations from purchasing vaccines at good prices.

How dangerous is the Omicron variant?

The Omicron variant was first reported to the WHO on 24 November, and has since been identified in many other countries. There have also been reports of cases of Omicron much earlier than first though in the Netherlands, maybe as many as 12 days ago. It has yet to be determined whether this is because it originated there or from South Africa flight.

The WHO announced last week that it would classify Omicron as a "Variant of Concern" while further tests are undertaken.