COVID Variant Xi? World Health Organization Skips to Omicron

Patrick Goodenough | November 28, 2021 | 4:54pm EST
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World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in late January 2020. (Photo by Naohiko Hatta/AFP via Getty Images)
World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in late January 2020. (Photo by Naohiko Hatta/AFP via Getty Images)

( – From the moment the World Health Organization last May announced its decision to name new variants of the virus causing COVID-19 after letters of the Greek alphabet, it was only a matter of time until the sequence reached the letter spelled “Xi.” But when it did, the U.N. agency balked.

On Friday the WHO announced it was using the name “omicron” for the newly-identified variant first reported by South African health authorities two days earlier, after a WHO technical advisory group recommended that it be designated a “variant of concern” and governments rushed to issue bans on travelers from southern Africa.

Explaining the naming decision, the WHO said, “Xi was not used because it is a common surname and WHO best practices for naming new diseases (developed in conjunction with FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] and OIE [Organization for Animal Health] back in 2015) suggest avoiding ‘causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.’”

(The WHO said it had also skipped another letter in the Greek alphabet, Nu, because it was “too easily confounded with ‘new.’”)

Xi (pronounced “kzai”) is the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet. Xi (usually pronounced “shee”) is a surname in China, although not among the 20 most common Chinese surnames (which range from Wang in first place, used by more than 101 million people, and Luo in 20th place, used by some 14 million people.)

Xi is also the rendering in English of the surname of the Chinese president. The WHO has fended off accusations since early last year that it has gone out of its way to avoid upsetting the leadership of the country where the coronavirus first emerged in late 2019.

The WHO decision to name variants after Greek letters was itself designed to avoid “stigmatization,” after criticism that China and Chinese people were being unfairly associated with the virus first reported from Wuhan.

It said in announcing the move to Greek letters last May that “people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory. To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels.”

Critics had earlier pointed to a perceived double standard, noting that while references to China and Wuhan were deemed to be offensive and even “racist,” media and other sources had commonly referred to strains first detected in other countries as the “U.K.” or “South African” or “Indian” variant.

President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were among those roundly criticized for using terms like the “Wuhan virus.”  A year before the WHO decision on Greek alphabet labels, then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) led a group of Democratic colleagues introducing a resolution saying that using labels such as “Chinese Virus” and “Wuhan Virus” was perpetuating “anti-Asian stigma.”

Contrary to some reporting and social media discussion, this is the first time the WHO has skipped letters when naming variants in this pandemic. Although they were much lower profile than the widespread delta variant, other “variants of concern” or “variants of interest,” subsequently downgraded to “variants being monitored,” were named for intervening letters lambda, gamma, kappa etc.

Alerts, travel bans

The emergence of the variant labeled omicron sparked global health alerts and travel restrictions, including a proclamation by President Biden on Friday.

Beginning immediately after midnight on Monday morning, the U.S. will restrict entry to non-citizen travelers who in the past fortnight have been in eight southern African nations – Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins said on Sunday it would take two to three weeks to get sufficient data from South Africa to establish the efficacy of existing vaccines against the variant.

Scientists have yet to determine if omicron causes more severe sickness than previous variants of the coronavirus.

“How severe would it be? We have no data so far to suggest that it would be,” Collins said when asked that question on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“There’s even a bit of a report from South Africa that maybe people with this are milder than the usual case,” he said. “But they’re mostly young people, who have mild illness anyway. So, I would say we just don’t know.

Collins said there were signs that omicron is able to spread quickly, although as to how contagious it is, it was not yet known “whether it can compete with delta.”

“It is not yet clear whether infection with omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including delta,” the WHO said in a Sunday update.

“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with omicron.  There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with omicron are different from those from other variants.”

Biden was to receive an update from his medical team on his return to the White House from Nantucket on Sunday afternoon.

See also:

Don’t Call Them ‘Indian’ or ‘UK’ Virus Variants, WHO Says (Jun. 1, 2021)

Chinese Media Outlets Used Terms Like ‘Wuhan Virus’ Early On – Then Scrubbed Them (May 22, 2020)

Linking the Coronavirus to China is ‘Racist’?  Numerous Diseases Have Been Named For Places (Mar. 11, 2020)

China Bristles at Pompeo’s References to ‘Wuhan Coronavirus’; Don't Call It 'Wuhan' (Mar. 9, 2020)

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