The World Health Organization (WHO) has named the new coronavirus variant omicron, skipping two letters of the Greek alphabet, Nu and Xi, to avoid giving what is perhaps the most dangerous variant yet the same name as President Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.
In May 2021, the World Health Organization announced that new variants of SARS-CoV-2 — the coronavirus causing the global pandemic — would be named after Greek letters, and not the country or locale in which they were first identified.
Beforehand, the only official labels were assigned by scientific databases and featured a letter followed by a string of numbers, such as B.1.1.7, P.1 and B.1.351.
As a result, these clunky names were replaced colloquially by the name of the place where they were first found, such as Kent, Brazil and South Africa.
But health officials were concerned about discrimination, prejudice and stigmatiation of people from these places and sought a naming system that avoided this.
Names of birds were suggested, but the WHO settled on the Greek alphabet as an inoffensive and easy to digest nomenclature system.
All pre-existing variants were retrospectively named in order of their emergence, while those that emerged later took up the next available letter in the alphabet.
And thus, the Kent variant became known as alpha, South African became eta, Brazilian became gamma and the Indian variant was rebadged as delta.
But aside from these well-known forms, there have been 9 others, stretching all the way down to Mu.
However, on Friday, the World Health Organization broke from this orderly system and called the 13th variant omicron, the 15th letter of the alphabet.
Nu, the 13th letter of the alphabet, was likely skipped to avoid confusion about the new Nu variant, but no explanation has yet been given by the WHO.
It is also unclear if Nu and Xi will be used as variant names in the future.