As countries scramble to react to the new Omicron variant of COVID-19, the name “Omicron” has raised a few questions: Whatever happened to “Nu” and “Xi,” the two letters in the Greek alphabet after “Mu,” the name of the last identified variant of the virus?
And was “Xi” skipped because it’s spelled just like the last name of China’s top leader?
The B.1.1.529 variant, named by the WHO as Omicron on Friday, has been listed as a “variant of concern” due to its potential for complicating current COVID-19 responses. First reported to the WHO by experts in South Africa, the Omicron variant contains a high number of mutations and appears to pose a higher risk of reinfection. Its resistance against existing COVID-19 vaccines is yet to be determined.
In statements to reporters, the World Health Organization explained that it skipped “Nu” for the variant name because it was “too easily confounded with ‘new,’” and “Xi” because it’s a “common last name.”
However, a 2020 report on Chinese surnames by the Ministry of Public Security shows that the surnames Mu and Xi share roughly the same prevalence in China. Chinese surnames that are romanized as “Mu” are ranked 229th and 230th in popularity; those spelled as “Xi” are ranked 169th, 228th, and 296th.
While Xi is about as common as Mu as a Chinese surname, it does have a higher profile worldwide, because it’s the last name of President Xi Jinping of China.
And what about the Delta variant, which calls to mind a major American airline of the same name? The coincidence caused Delta Air Lines—from its CEO to its flight stewards—to pull out all the stops in avoiding the D-word.
Responding to email queries from VICE World News, the WHO didn’t provide further explanation to their naming decisions but sent a link to an article published by the agency in May, announcing the choice to label new SARS-CoV-2 variants with Greek letters.
“These labels were chosen after wide consultation and a review of many potential naming systems,” the article read, adding that the new labels are encouraged instead of calling variants by their geographical locations, which is “stigmatizing and discriminatory.”
This is consistent with the WHO’s 2015 recommendation not to name new human diseases that could cause offence to “any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”
That’s why COVID-19 wasn’t named after where it first emerged. On the other hand, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), first identified in 2012, was named after a region—and cited by the WHO as a bad example that stigmatized communities.
This highlights the challenge of science communication and the difficulty of finding a naming convention that is both consistent and easy to remember—without causing offense or confusion.
Potential new variants of COVID-19 could pose further naming questions. After “omicron,” the next four Greek alphabet letters are “pi,” “rho,” “sigma,” and “tau,” words that are also used as company and personal names.
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