Why is the new Covid variant called Omicron? The meaning behind the Greek name according to WHO

What does Omicron mean and why was it chosen for the new Covid variant?

A nurse holding the Pfizer vaccine. (Pic credit: Lauren Decicca / Getty Images)

The latest coronavirus strain was initially called B.1.1.529 but the World Health Organisation (WHO) uses Greek letters of the alphabet to assign simple, easy to remember and pronounce labels for key variants of SARS-CoV-2.

On November 26, WHO designated the name Omicron to the variant, which is the 15th Greek letter of the alphabet.

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These names are chosen after a wide negotiation and review of many potential naming systems with a variety of expert groups all over the world, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities.

The names do not replace existing scientific terms, for instance those assigned by GISAID, Nextstrain and Pango, which show key scientific information and will continue to be used in research.

“While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting. As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatising and discriminatory,” WHO said.

“To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels.”

People have pointed out that WHO has skipped a few Greek letters before landing on Omicron.

According to the UN, WHO had not gone for the 13th Greek letter ‘Nu’ because it sounded too similar to the word ‘new’ and could confuse things.

It is also thought that WHO skipped the 14th letter of the alphabet ‘Xi’ is a common name in China, and by its reasoning, picking this name for the new variant of concern would be offensive.