3 min read.Updated: 29 Nov 2021, 06:56 PM ISTISABEL COLES, The Wall Street Journal
WHO has been using the Greek alphabet to name coronavirus strains, but avoided two letters that presented problems
As health authorities around the world grappled with the emergence of a new strain of the coronavirus, virologists were struggling with a thorny question of their own: What should they name it?
The World Health Organization has been using Greek letters to refer to the most widely prevalent coronavirus variants, which otherwise carry unwieldy scientific names. It had already gone through 12 letters of the Greek alphabet when a new variant called B.1.1.529 was detected.
But the next two letters in the Greek alphabet, Nu and Xi, posed problems.
The WHO said it had skipped them because Nu was too easily confused with “new," while Xi is a common surname. The body cited best practices for naming diseases that seek to avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups. Xi is a common surname in China, shared by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Until the practice of naming variants after characters in the Greek alphabet was adopted in May, new strains of the virus were commonly referred to by the country where they were first detected.
The new system sought to avoid stigmatizing countries that discover new variants. And so what was known as the U.K. variant—also the Kent variant after the English county where it was discovered—became Alpha, while a strain detected in South Africa was named Beta. Another thought to have originated in Brazil was given the name Gamma, while Delta was one of the variants first found in India.
Omicron was first detected in early November by scientists in South Africa, where the variant has fueled a jump in the country’s cases, albeit from a low starting point. Virologists said it isn’t known whether the variant first emerged there or if it was simply the first country to detect it.
The U.K., Australia, Netherlands and Italy said over the weekend they had found cases of the variant in travelers arriving from southern Africa. The variant also has been identified in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
The risk posed by the Omicron variant remains uncertain.
Scientists say some of its roughly 50 mutations could potentially render it more transmissible, reduce vaccine effectiveness or raise the risk that people who have previously had Covid-19 could fall ill again. It could also cause patients to become more seriously ill.
It will take time for virologists and infectious-disease researchers to study the variant’s spread and the potential impact on vaccines and therapeutics.
Its emergence threatens to upend an uneasy status in countries that were adapting to life with the virus in its most prevalent form, Delta. The British government tightened restrictions on Saturday after confirming two cases of Omicron, including imposing new mask mandates and requiring PCR tests for incoming travelers. The U.K. also said it would ramp up a booster vaccination campaign.
New Covid-19 variants emerge almost daily, but only those with genetic mutations that increase its threat to human beings are classified either as “variants under monitoring," “variants of interest" or “variants of concern."
Omicron joins four other variants designated by the WHO as variants of concern, including Delta, which accounts for 99.9% of sequenced Covid-19 cases in the U.S. as of Nov. 20. The agency said preliminary evidence suggests Omicron poses a higher risk of re-infection than the others, and asked countries to increase surveillance and sequencing and to report initial cases or clusters caused by the new variant.