Updated: November 29, 2021 12:45:25 pm
While picking a name for the variants of SARS-CoV2, the World Health Organisation has so far skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet, one of which also happens to be a popular surname in China, shared even by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
WHO has been using Greek letters to refer to the most widely prevalent coronavirus variants, which otherwise carry long scientific names. It had already used 12 letters of the Greek alphabet, before a new variant emerged in South Africa earlier this week. WHO selected Omicron for this one, instead of Nu or Xi, the two letters that precede it.
The WHO said Nu could have been confused with the word ‘new’ while Xi was not picked up following a convention.
“Two letters were skipped – Nu and Xi – because Nu is too easily confounded with “new” and XI was not used because it is a common surname and WHO best practices for naming new diseases (developed in conjunction with FAO and OIE back in 2015) suggest avoiding ‘causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups’,” the WHO said in a statement.
Their decision to skip the two letters and use the next available one to name the latest variant had generated a lot of curiosity and interest on the internet.
Depending on the threat they pose, WHO classifies new variants either as ‘variants under monitoring (VUMs)’, ‘variants of interest (VoIs)’ or ‘variants of concern (VoCs)’. All of them are given scientific names which represent their parentage and the chain of evolution. The Omicron variant, for example, is also known by its more scientific designation B.1.1.529. This designation shows that the variant has evolved from the B.1 variant.
Since the scientific names are not easy to remember, the more widely prevalent variants started to be named after the country from which they were first reported. Accordingly, there used to be a UK variant, an Indian variant, a South African variant, a Brazilian variant and a few more.
In order to remove the linkage with specific countries, which was triggering a lot of name-calling and blame game, the WHO had decided on a new naming system for easy identification of the prominent variants. It chose to name them after the Greek letters. Accordingly, the variant that earlier used to be referred as the ‘Indian’ got the name Delta, while the UK one was called Alpha.
There are currently five VoCs — Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron. Two VoIs are called Lambda and Mu. A few variants, like Kappa, Eta or Iota, have seen their VoI classification getting withdrawn because they are no longer widely in circulation and pose considerably less risk than earlier.
New variants of the SARS-CoV2 virus, having a few changes in the genetic structure, emerge almost on a daily basis, but not all of them are significant. Only the variants carrying genetic mutations that enhance its threat to human beings are classified as VuMs, VoIs or VoCs.
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