Officials at the WHO called the new variant Omicron because 'Nu' sounded too close to 'new'

·3 min read
A logo is pictured outside a building of the World Health Organization (WHO) during an executive board meeting on update on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Geneva, Switzerland, April 6, 2021.
A logo is pictured outside a building of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Switzerland in April 2021.Denis Balibouse/REUTERS
  • The Omicron variant of the coronavirus should technically be called the "Nu" variant, as it is the next letter in the Greek alphabet after the previously named variant, "Mu."

  • But officials at the World Health Organization skipped "Nu" because it sounded too much like "new."

  • They also skipped "Xi" because it is a common last name, the agency told The New York Times.

The World Health Organization on Friday labeled the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus one of concern after it was discovered in South Africa earlier in November.

The official name for the variant of the coronavirus is B.1.1.529, but the World Health Organization has used letters in the Greek alphabet to name the variant. WHO officials, according to a report from The New York Times, settled on Omicron for the latest variant after they decided to skip both the Greek letters "Nu" and "Xi."

"'Nu' is too easily confounded with 'new,'" Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO spokesman told the Times on Saturday. "And 'Xi' was not used because it is a common last name."

So, officials settled on the next letter: "omicron."

He told the outlet that the naming process intends to avoid "causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups."

While the WHO labeled the variant one of "concern" on Friday, officials have stressed that little about the variant is known.

"We don't know very much about this variant yet," Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, said at a briefing Thursday. "What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves."

Some right-wing figures criticized the WHO for excluding "Xi," which is the name of Chinese President Xi Jinping, even though the Greek letter and Chinese name are pronounced differently, as Insider previously reported.

"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?" GOP Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said in a tweet.

Previously named variants of the coronavirus included the Greek letters "Alpha," "Beta," and "Gamma." Variants "Lamda," "Delta," and "Mu" were also named and considered variants of interest by the agency, as the Times reported. "Xi" and "Nu" were the only letters that have so far been skipped, he said.

In addition to the cumbersome official names of the variants, one researcher told the Times that Greek letters were valuable in naming the variants to avoid using the location where they were first discovered, which can be "stigmatizing and discriminatory," to the people who live in those places.

"From the very beginning of the pandemic, I remember people saying: 'We called it the Spanish flu. Why don't we call it the Wuhan coronavirus?'" Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, told the Times. "The Spanish flu did not come from Spain. We don't know where it emerged from, but there's a very good possibility it emerged from the US."

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