Why is the new coronavirus variant called 'Omicron'?

In choosing a name for the variant, the World Health Organization skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet, Nu and Xi. Here is why.

 Dutch health authorities find 61 passengers who arrived from South Africa as COVID-19 positive, in Amsterdam. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dutch health authorities find 61 passengers who arrived from South Africa as COVID-19 positive, in Amsterdam.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The new coronavirus variant has been named Omicron, skipping the previous two Greek letters, to avoid generating confusion and causing harm to the Chinese people, a World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

On Thursday, as reports about the variant first found in South Africa began to emerge, many started to refer to it as the “Nu” variant.

The speculation made sense.

When the first new coronavirus variants emerged in the early phase of the pandemic, they became known to the public with the name of the country where they were first identified: the British variant, the South African variant and so on.

The variants also had official scientific names. For example, the British variant is known among scientists as B.1.1.7. However, those labels did not really work for the purpose of general communication.

A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.  (credit: REUTERS/ DENIS BALIBOUSE)A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (credit: REUTERS/ DENIS BALIBOUSE)

In May, the WHO decided to step in and introduced a new designation system based on Greek letters.

“While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting,” the WHO said in a statement. “As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory.

“To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels,” it added, referring to the Greek letter designation.

As a result, the British variant became Alpha, the South African one Beta and the Brazilian one Gamma. By the time Delta emerged, nobody really called it “Indian,” even though India was the area where it was first recorded in November 2020.

In the following months, more variants were identified, even though many did not become known to the general public.

The last two discovered were called, respectively, Lambda and Mu. Although these letters are followed by Nu and Xi in the Greek Alphabet, the WHO decided to skip them.

According to WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris, Nu was not employed to avoid confusion in English-speaking countries.

“Nu sounds too much like ‘new’ in English,” Harris told Corriere della Sera. “In short, the English-speaking world would have found itself in the situation of hearing two extremely similar sounds in a sentence in which it spoke of the ‘new Nu variant’ and would have thought that it was only a new variant, not the name of that variant.”

Regarding Xi, the problem was geopolitical.

“Xi is an extremely common last name,” she said. “Our guidelines impose not to use names that could harm cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”

Xi is common in China. It is also the name of the current president, Xi Jinping.