Story at a glance

  • The World Health Organization announced a new COVID-19 variant of concern and named it omicron.
  • The name follows the WHO’s Greek alphabet naming system.
  • However, the letters “Nu” and “Xi” were skipped when naming omicron.

As scientists identified another variant of concern, the name given to the new strain of COVID-19 is also raising red flags.

The omicron variant was identified over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and declared a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO). It was first identified in South Africa and in response, countries across the world promptly shut their borders. The same day WHO announced omicron as a variant of concern, President Biden announced travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries.

The way in which omicron was named is drawing attention as it deviates from the order of the Greek alphabet, the WHO’s established naming system. Earlier this year the organization announced it would use letters of the Greek alphabet to name key variants of COVID-19, in order to make it easier to say and remember. It also moves away from stigmatizing a place and groups of people, as earlier variants were referred to based on where they were first identified.

The latest COVID-19 variant name, omicron, actually skipped two letters in the Greek alphabet. The next letter in line was “Nu,” which WHO claimed was not used because it was too similar to the word “new,” according to WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic, who spoke with The New York Times.


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After “Nu” would have been “Xi,” which was also not used to name omicron. The reasoning behind that is seemingly more political, as it is also the name of China’s leader Xi Jinping. China is an especially sensitive subject of the pandemic, with the origins of the original COVID-19 strain linked to a wet market in Wuhan, China. 

Former President Trump publicly referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus” on multiple occasions, including in a tweet that led to a sharp increase in anti-Asian language on Twitter, according to a study conducted at the University of California San Francisco. 

Though WHO did not initially offer an explanation for how it named omicron, Jasarevic told the Times that WHO’s policy requires “avoiding causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”

Jasarevic also told the outlet that “‘Xi’ was not used because it is a common last name.” 

There’s also no evidence to suggest that China had any influence over the naming of omicron, but some have felt otherwise, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeting, “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?”

Historically many illnesses have been called by the area in which they were first identified, but aren’t necessarily accurate. The Spanish flu, for example, is not confirmed to have originated in Spain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers to that virus as the 1918 influenza pandemic and says that there isn’t universal consensus on where that virus originated.


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Published on Nov 29, 2021