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Explained: Why he was named Omicron and not Nu or Xi




In choosing a name for the latest variant of SARS-CoV-2, Omicron, the World Health Organization (WHO) ignored two letters of the Greek alphabet, one of which is also a popular surname in China. , shared even by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The WHO has used Greek letters to denote the most prevalent coronavirus variants, which otherwise have long scientific names. He had already used 12 letters of the Greek alphabet before the new variant appeared in South Africa this week. After Mu, the 12th named after a Greek letter, WHO chose the name Omicron, instead of Nu or Xi, the two letters between Mu and Omicron.

The WHO said Nu could have been mistaken for the word new when Xi was not chosen following a convention.

Two letters were ignored Nu and Xi because Nu is too easily confused with new and XI was not used as it is a common surname and the WHO best practices for naming new diseases ( developed in collaboration with FAO and OIE in 2015) suggest avoiding offending any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic group, the WHO said in a statement.

All the variants have scientific names that represent their parentage and the chain of evolution. Omicron, for example, is also known by its more scientific designation B.1.1.529, which shows that it evolved from the B.1 lineage.

Since scientific names are not easy to remember, the most common variants began to be named after the country from which they were first reported: British variant, Indian variant, South African variant. or Brazilian variant. To remove the link with specific countries, which triggered a game of insults and blame, the WHO decided on a new naming system using Greek letters. The variant that was previously called the Indian was therefore given the name Delta, while the one associated with the United Kingdom was named Alpha.

During the pandemic, many variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus have emerged, the latest being Omicron in South Africa.


When an infected cell builds new coronaviruses, it sometimes makes tiny copying errors. This is called mutations. Mutations are transmitted through a lineage, a branch of the viral family tree. A group of coronaviruses that share the same inherited set of distinctive mutations is called a variant.


The WHO currently lists 5 worrying variants:

  • Omicron (B.1.1.529), identified in southern Africa in November 2021
  • Delta (B.1.617.2), which emerged in India in late 2020 and has spread around the world
  • Gamma (P.1), appeared in Brazil at the end of 2020
  • Beta (B.1.351), appeared in South Africa in early 2020
  • Alpha (B.1.1.7), which merged in Great Britain at the end of 2020

There are currently two:

  • Mu (B.1.621), which emerged in Colombia in early 2021
  • Lambda (C.37), appeared in Peru at the end of 2020

Illustrations and text: The New York Times




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