In Naming Omicron Variant, Authorities Skipped ‘Xi’ and ‘Nu’

WHO has been using the Greek alphabet to name coronavirus strains, but avoided two letters that presented problems. From a report: As health authorities around the world grappled with the emergence of a new strain of the coronavirus, virologists were struggling with a thorny question of their own: What should they name it? The World Health Organization has been using Greek letters to refer to the most widely prevalent coronavirus variants, which otherwise carry unwieldy scientific names. It had already gone through 12 letters of the Greek alphabet when a new variant called B.1.1.529 was detected. But the next two letters in the Greek alphabet, Nu and Xi, posed problems. The WHO said it had skipped them because Nu was too easily confused with "new," while Xi is a common surname. The body cited best practices for naming diseases that seek to avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups. Xi ranked 296th last year among the most common family names in China, according to the government. The top 100 family names are used by about 85% of the population, official data show. The Xi surname is shared by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Until the practice of naming variants after characters in the Greek alphabet was adopted in May, new strains of the virus were commonly referred to by the country where they were first detected. The new system sought to avoid stigmatizing countries that discover new variants. And so what was known as the U.K. variant -- also the Kent variant after the English county where it was discovered -- became Alpha, while a strain detected in South Africa was named Beta. Another thought to have originated in Brazil was given the name Gamma, while Delta was one of the variants first found in India.

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