The naming of Omicron, the new Coronavirus variant was not easy for the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO categorizes new variants as “Variants Under Monitoring (VUM)”, “Variants of Interest (VOI)”, or “Variants of Concern (VOC)” based on the threat they pose.
They are all given scientific names that represent their parentage and the evolutionary chain. For example, the Omicron variant scientific name is B.1.1.529. This designation indicates that the variant evolved from the B.1 variant.
Scientific names are difficult to remember. The more common variants began to be named after the country from which they were first reported. As a result, there was a UK variant, an Indian variant etc. But this started a blame game politics among countries.
The WHO had decided on a new naming system for easy identification of the prominent variants in order to remove the linkage with specific countries, which was causing a lot of blame game. WHO decided to name them after Greek letters. As a result, the variant previously known as the ‘Indian’ was renamed Delta, while the UK variant was renamed Alpha.
Before a new variant emerged in South Africa in November 2021, WHO had already used 12 letters of the Greek alphabet. WHO ended up choosing Omicron (on the advice of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE)) for this variant rather than Nu or Xi, the two letters that come before it.
The World Health Organization has avoided using two letters of the Greek alphabet when naming SARS-CoV2 variants, one of which is also a popular surname in China, shared even by Chinese President Xi Jinpin.
“Two letters were skipped – Nu and Xi – because Nu is too easily confused with “new,” and XI was not used because it is a common surname, and WHO best practices for naming new diseases suggest avoiding causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups,” the WHO said in a statement.