The WHO has named the latest variant of the Covid-19 virus “omicron”, saying it has become a variant of concern since it was first identified in South Africa on 9 November and that it poses a “very high” global risk with potentially severe consequences.
While the global health agency and other experts continue to study just how dangerous and transmissible the variant is, it has already drawn international attention because of the “unprecedented” number of mutations it exhibits compared to other Covid variants — as well as confusion over where it gets its name from.
Why is the variant called omicron?
Earlier on in the pandemic, new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus were given scientific names with a complex combination of letters and numbers.
It meant that for shorthand, variants typically ended up being referred to by the country where they were first identified — a system which experts said resulted in stigma against the people of those countries, as well as some confusion and misreporting.
The WHO in May 2021 announced a simple naming system for new variants of the virus. It said that each new variant would be named after successive letters in the Greek alphabet.
As such, one of the first variants with significant mutations which was first sequenced in Britain — B.1.1.7 — was named alpha, and a potentially menacing variant that emerged in South Africa in 2020 was named beta.
Keeping up with the method, the WHO on Friday named the new B.1.1.529 variant omicron, which is the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet. The letter omicron is equivalent to a short-sounded English letter “O”.
Apart from omicron, the WHO has listed five other “variants of concern”, which it uses to describe a variant that is more contagious, if vaccines work less well against it, or if it has a combination of both characteristics.
Alpha and beta remain variants of concern, alongside the variant that was first discovered in Brazil — gamma, the lambda variant that was found in Peru and the globally dominant variant that originated in India — delta.
There have been other variants that did not raise such immediate concerns but were named as “variants of interest”, to be assessed. These have included mu, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa and epsilon.
“No country should be stigmatised for detecting and reporting variants,” the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, tweeted when the Greek alphabet system was announced.
Ms Van Kerkhove said in an interview at the time that if more than 24 significant variants are identified and the WHO runs out of Greek letters, then a new naming programme will be announced.
Why were nu and xi skipped?
When naming the new variant, two letters that come in the Greek alphabet before omicron — nu and xi — were skipped. Many have noted that Xi is a family name most widely associated with the Chinese president
“’Nu’ is too easily confounded with ‘new’, and ‘xi’ was not used because it is a common last name,” the WHO said in a statement to Reuters.
“WHO best practices for naming disease suggest avoiding ‘causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups’,” the statement added.
This was the first time that the organisation skipped letters when naming coronavirus variants, and it has been leapt on by political opponents of China as a result.
In the US, Republican senator Ted Cruz wrote: “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.”
The son of the former president, Donald Trump Jr, added: “As far as I’m concerned the original will always be the Xi variant.”
And Priyanka Chaturvedi, a politician from India, also slammed the health agency.
She wrote: “WHO won’t call out China. WHO will skip Nu and Xi as a variant. But WHO’s apologists will come on our timeline to accuse Africa and India. Guys get a spine then will talk.”