We've all heard the witticism that coronavirus is teaching Americans the Greek alphabet, but if that's the case, we are misunderstanding the order of the letters,
“Most of us know certain critical letters — alpha, beta, gamma,” said Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “And then it starts to get hairy.”..Well before the pandemic, there were alpha particles and gamma rays. Sigma, as any Microsoft Excel user knows, is the symbol for sum. And perhaps no letter is more famous than pi...“Never did anything I learned as a drunken sorority girl prepare me more for the current world climate as learning the Greek alphabet,” one person wrote.Before June, scientists were using their own established naming systems for variants — B.1.1.7, for instance. And in the public, new variants were being colloquially described by the countries in which they were first detected, a practice the World Health Organization called “stigmatizing and discriminatory.”So the WHO convened a series of meetings. One idea involved basing variant names on species of birds... Almost every idea had a problem. There were concerns about trademarks and lawsuits...But even the Greek system, it turns out, has some pitfalls.When a new, highly mutated variant was discovered in late November, the next letter in line, alphabetically, was nu. But the WHO decided a homophone for “new” would be too confusing. Officials rejected “the new nu variant.”The next letter in the Greek alphabet is Xi, which happens to be spelled identically to the surname of the Chinese leader — an unwelcome echo of when President Donald Trump insisted on referring to the “China virus.” The WHO skipped that one, too.“Xi was not used, because it is a common surname,” the WHO said in a statement to The Washington Post.Looking ahead, scientists see one other problem. There are countless variants — and probably more significant ones on the way — but the Greek alphabet has just 24 letters, and only nine remain on the list.
More at the Washington Post, including a table listing all 13 current coronavirus variants.