World Health Organization Skips Greek Letter ‘Xi’ in Naming New Covid Variant


Getty Images/Naohiko Hatta

The World Health Organization announced Friday it was naming a new Covid-19 variant “Omicron,” skipping over a politically sensitive letter of the Greek alphabet.

The WHO made the announcement about the B.1.1.529 variant out of Johannesburg, South Africa, passing over a letter many observers presumed would be next — “Nu” — as well as the subsequent letter, “Xi,” which composes part of Chinese leader Xi Jinping‘s name.

The virus joins earlier variants named for letters of the alphabet, including the Alpha variant out of the United Kingdom; the Beta variant out of South Africa; the Gamma variant out of Brazil; and the Delta variant out of India. Additional variants include Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda, and Mu.

To date, “Nu” and “Xi” are the only letters the WHO has opted against using. Officials didn’t provide an explanation, but Paul Nuki, an editor for the London-based Telegraph, claimed Friday that a source said the decision to skip “Xi” was intentional. “Nu had been skipped to avoid confusion with the word ‘new;’ and Xi had been skipped to ‘avoid stigmatising a region,'” Nuki wrote on Twitter.

The United Nations agency has been famously deferential toward China, where Covid-19 began in the province of Wuhan. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with Xi at the beginning of the outbreak, when he praised China for its “openness to sharing information” about Covid-19, despite the country’s initial refusal to let the agency’s scientists investigate. American intelligence later revealed China became aware of the virus in November 2019, months before the country began cooperating with health officials.

Former President Donald Trump committed last year to ending U.S. participation in the international agency, but President Joe Biden reversed the decision in January, when he sent Dr. Anthony Fauci to tell officials he was “honored to announce that the United States will remain a member.”

The Biden administration announced Friday it was banning travel to the United States from South Africa and seven other African nations in response to the new variant — including Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.

Nine letters remain in the Greek alphabet, ending with Omega, before officials may need to consider returning to Nu and Xi.

Have a tip we should know?

Filed Under: