Why WHO chose to skip 'Nu' and 'Xi' and named new COVID-19 variant as Omicron

The naming decision went viral on Twitter, with some netizens questioning the method in which the name was chosen and whether the United Nations health agency had done so in order to avoid antagonising China

FP Staff November 27, 2021 13:21:00 IST
Why WHO chose to skip 'Nu' and 'Xi' and named new COVID-19 variant as Omicron

A sign of the World Health Organization (WHO) at the entrance of their headquarters in Geneva. AFP

The emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has scientists worried, countries imposing travel bans, financial markets crashing and the Internet talking about how the new name was chose.

On Friday, the World Health Organisation in their meeting decided to call the new strain — B.1.1.529 — Omicron and deemed it a ‘variant of concern’ owing to a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning.

The naming decision quickly went viral on Twitter, with some netizens questioning the method in which the name was chosen and whether the United Nations health agency had done so in order to avoid antagonising China.

For the unversed, this is what it means.

Typically, the WHO has been naming new virus strains as per the Greek alphabet. This method was chosen by the global health body on 31 May, 2021. The idea was to ensure that variants had easy-to-say and remember labels. The naming system was also designed to avoid geographical stigma being assigned to a COVID-19 variant.

Going by the WHO method, the new strain that was first found in South Africa should have been either named ‘Nu’ or ‘Xi’.

Internet pundits and politicians speculated that the group skipped Nu to avoid confusion with the word “new”. They also added that Xi was skipped in an effort to avoid antagonising China and its leader Xi Jinping.

United States Senator Ted Cruz retweeted a Telegraph editor who cited a WHO source saying Xi was skipped to “avoid stigmatising a region.”

“If the WHO is this scared of the Chinese Communist Party, how can they be trusted to call them out next time they’re trying to cover up a catastrophic global pandemic?” Cruz wrote in his tweet, calling out Beijing, which has already come under massive scrutiny over its role in the outbreak of the virus.

Epidemiologist Martin Kulldorf, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, too took to Twitter, discussing the naming of the new strain.

He suggested that the WHO had jumped the alphabet and named the new variant 'Omicron' in order to avoid the potential situation of ever having to call a coronavirus variant the 'Xi' strain.

Other Twitter users also jumped into the discussion, with Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School and a noted attorney, tweeted, “He who must not be named. It appears the WHO has skipped the next Greek letter after Nu to name the new variant. The next letter is Xi. The concern is that WHO is again avoiding any discomfort for the Chinese government. So they named it Omicron...”

Another wrote, "All I can say is going from Nu to Omicron to omit Xi is very telling about how much sway China has over the #WHO these days."

An Al-Jazeera english news anchor, Kamahl Santamaria, also quipped on the issue.

His explanation on Twitter was:

However, Wall Street Journal's columnist Ben Zimmer congratulated WHO for the name.

“Kudos to the WHO for skipping over the potentially confusing Nu and Xi names and going straight to Omicron,” he wrote.

But while some took the issue seriously, there were others who joked about the naming decision.

One Twitter user wrote, "As a letter enthusiast, I feel sad for Nu and Xi not getting their moments. “I get it, but it’s still a bummer.”

With inputs from agencies

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