When news of the new SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1529 first began to emerge, many expected that if it was flagged by the World Health Organisation, it would – quite fittingly – be called the ‘Nu’ variant. The WHO has been naming coronavirus variants after the Greek alphabet and the next available letter was ‘Nu’.
However, after the WHO’s panel met on Friday, they designated the new strain found in South Africa and Botswana as a ‘variant of concern’ and announced that it would be called the ‘Omicron’ variant.
In doing so, they skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet – Nu and Xi. But why?
Epidemiologist Martin Kulldorf, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, provided a possible reason. Taking to Twitter, 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.
All things considered, it would be rather awkward for the world to be battling a coronavirus variant that shares its name with Chinese President Xi Jinping, especially after all the debates over the origin of the original virus. But in the bargain, ‘Nu’ lost its claim to fame too!
With an image of the Greek alphabet, Martin Kulldorf wrote, “News of new Nu variant, but WHO is jumping the alphabet to call it Omicron, so they can avoid Xi.”
News of new Nu variant, but WHO is jumping the alphabet to call it Omicron, so they can avoid Xi. pic.twitter.com/UJ4xMwg52i
— Martin Kulldorff (@MartinKulldorff) November 26, 2021
On Friday, the World Health Organisation designated SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1529 as a ‘variant of concern’. The new coronavirus variant, which has been detected in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel and Botswana, was named Omicron.
The WHO classified the variant as a “highly transmissible virus of concern”, the same category that includes the predominant delta variant of the coronavirus. In a bid to contain this new Covid-19 threat, countries across the world have rushed to impose travel bans.
Omicron’s actual risks are not understood yet. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of re-infection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted Covid-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against this variant.
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