Omicron: What’s In A Name?

OMICRON was named as a concerning variant of COVID-19 in November 2021.

Because it’s so new, we don’t know very much at this point.

· Is it more infectious/transmissible?

· Does it cause less severe disease?

· Can you be asymptomatic like the other variants?

· Will the vaccines be effective against Omicron?

Since we don’t know very much, I thought we should look at where the name Omicron came from.

In May 2021, the World Health Organization announced a simple method for naming COVID variants. They would name them after letters of the Greek alphabet. This system makes public communication about variants easier and less confusing. The older naming convention was unfair to the people where the virus emerged. The agency called the practice of describing variants by the places they were detected “stigmatizing and discriminatory.” (https://www.who.int/en/activities/tracking-SARS-CoV-2-variants/)

We better get familiar with the Greek alphabet: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda, mu, nu1, xi, omicron, pi1, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon, phi, chi1, psi1, omega.

Omicron, the 15th letter of the Greek Alphabet, was assigned to the 13th strain of COVID. Wait….13th? Not the 15th strain? Yes. The W.H.O. skipped two letters just before Omicron — “Nu” and “Xi”. “‘Nu’ is too easily confounded with ‘new,’” Tarik Jasarevic, a W.H.O. spokesman, said. “And ‘Xi’ was not used because it is a common last name.”

You may be thinking “I didn’t know there were 13 strains of COVID? That’s because we generally only hear about strains of “interest” or “concern”. There were some strains assigned a letter from the Greek alphabet that didn’t reach that classification level. For more information, check out this article in the New York Times.

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