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Yes, the WHO skipped ‘nu’ and ‘xi’ in naming new COVID-19 variant omicron. Here’s the explanation

The World Health Organization skipped two letters in the Greek alphabet to name the newest SARS-CoV-2 variant.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Omicron, classified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Friday, continues the agency’s use of the Greek alphabet for naming notable variants of the COVID-19 virus.

The classification is the highest alert level from the U.S. health agency, above “variants of interest” and “variants under monitoring.”

But users on social media have correctly pointed out the latest labeling doesn’t follow the correct order of the Greek alphabet.

THE QUESTION

In naming the newest COVID-19 variant “omicron,” did the World Health Organization skip over “nu” and “xi” in the Greek alphabet?

THE SOURCES

  • The World Health Organization (WHO)

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, the World Health Organization skipped “nu” and “xi” in naming the new COVID-19 variant “omicron.”

WHAT WE FOUND

Since May, the WHO has followed the Greek alphabet to label variants of the COVID-19 virus in an effort to keep people from referring to them by the location where they were detected. The agency previously said it was to avoid offending or stigmatizing a large group of people. 

So, the expectation was that this new variant would be classified “nu,” the next in line because a “mu” variant was designated in August.

But social media users correctly point out the health agency skipped “nu” and subsequently “xi.”

In a statement to VERIFY, a spokesperson for the WHO provided two explanations.

“Nu is too easily confounded with ‘new’ and Xi was not used because it is a common surname,” the WHO said. Some pointed out it is also the name of China’s leader Xi Jinping.

The statement notes that the agency’s best practices for naming new diseases suggest avoiding “causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”

Those best practices were developed in conjunction with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in 2015.

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