The designation of a recently discovered coronavirus variation has left some social media users perplexed about the World Health Organization’s mechanism for designating specific strains of the virus.
The WHO named the variation “omicron” on Friday, maintaining its usage of the Greek alphabet to name noteworthy viral variants. The variant was initially reported to the WHO by scientists in South Africa.
However, social media users accurately pointed out that the organization missed two letters in the process, raising suspicions about the decision.
Here’s what we know about the origins of the name omicron.
The new strain has been dubbed the “omicron” variation by the World Health Organization, which has skipped through “nu” and “xi” without explanation.
A novel variation of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was given the name “omicron” by the WHO on Friday. It was also labeled as a “variant of concern” by the FDA.
Scientists in South Africa were the first to report Omicron to the United Nations’ health office, and it has now been discovered in a number of other nations, according to the Associated Press.
Since May, the WHO has used the Greek alphabet to name specific forms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It claims that the approach allows variations to be referred to in a more straightforward manner than their scientific names, and that it prevents people from stigmatizing variants by referring to them by the area where they were discovered.
Many had anticipated the government to name the next variety nu, which follows mu, which was named on Aug. 30.
Instead, the WHO omitted nu and xi, the next Greek letter in line, a decision that many users on social media criticized, while others speculated that it was done to avoid insulting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The WHO said it omitted nu for clarity and xi to avoid offending people in general in a statement to the Associated Press.
“‘Nu’ is too readily confused with ‘new,’ and ‘Xi’ was not chosen since it is a popular last name,” the WHO explained, adding that “best practices for naming diseases include avoiding ‘provoking offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”
The agency published a paper in May 2015 that described these recommended practices. When identifying infectious illnesses, the group stated that it aimed to “minimize avoidable harmful impacts on nations, economies, and individuals.”
This is the first time the organization has skipped letters since starting to identify coronavirus variations using the Greek alphabet; the alphabet has previously been used to mark 12 others. Like omicron, alpha, beta, gamma, and delta are now “variants of concern.” Lambda and mu are labeled as “variant of interest,” which is a less significant categorization. Former versions of interest were allocated six more letters.
The spike protein of the coronavirus appears to have a large number of changes in the omicron version, which might impact how easy it spreads to humans. Preliminary data “suggests a higher risk of reinfection” compared to other variations of concern, the WHO said on Friday.
However, scientists are currently investigating exactly what the genetic alterations entail in order to determine whether the variation is more transmissible or harmful. There is currently no evidence that the variation causes more severe illness.