02 January 2022

Why Omicron is not Nu or Xi

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.


  1. Xi is actually NOT a common surname in China. The WHO simply refuses to state the real reason, the connection to President Xi. While this is a reasonable cause to avoid the naming conflict, refusal to state it is further confirmation of their subservience to the PRC's propaganda machine.

    1. True. Wikipedia states that about 0.01% of people in Mainland China have the surname Xi. That puts it at about 350 in the top 400 surnames.

  2. How do we know that was the reason the WHO didn't use it and not the authors speculation.
    I'd assume the WHO has learned to not piss off anyone unnecessarily.

  3. Why make things difficult when an easy solution is at hand? Just use Disney characters to name those variants, like Winnie the Pooh.

  4. The NY Times cites an email they received from WHO in response to questions about skipping the two letters:

    “‘Nu’ is too easily confounded with ‘new,’ and ‘Xi’ was not used because it is a common last name,” a spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic, said on Saturday in an emailed response to questions about skipping the two letters. The organization’s policy, [Jasarevic] went on, requires “avoiding causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”

    ^from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/28/world/asia/omicron-variant-name-covid.html

    Of course the Times could have fabricated that story, but Tarik Jasaveric certainly is a spokesperson for the WHO

    Tarik Jasarevic
    Telephone: +41227915099
    Mobile: +41793676214
    Email: jasarevict@who.int
    from: https://www.who.int/news-room/media-contacts

    1. "Anything is possible thus nothing can ever be true" is dangerous territory to be in. So when you contacted him, what was the response?


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