'Stigmatising China': Surprising detail behind Covid variant's name

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set the record straight on why the new mutated variant of Covid-19 was dubbed Omicron following confusion over the name.

Since May, new variants of Sars-COV-2 have been given sequential labels from the Greek alphabet under a system devised by the agency to avoid strains becoming known by the places they were first detected.

Nu and Xi were the next letters to be used for a variant but were skipped in favour of Omicron.

A hospital worker walks amongst patients with COVID-19 in the COVID-19 ward at Khayelitsha Hospital, about 35km from the centre of Cape Town, on December 29, 2020. Source: Getty Images
The new variant, dubbed Omicron by the World Health Organisation, was first detected in South Africa. Source: Getty Images

In a statement provided to various media outlets, the WHO confirmed it passed Nu for clarity and Xi to avoid causing offence.

“[For] Nu the reasoning was people would get confused thinking it was the new variant, rather than a name,” a statement to the New York Post said.

“And XI because it’s a common surname and we have agreed [to] naming rules that avoid using place names, people’s names, animal, etc. to avoid stigma.”

The agency also said “best practices for naming diseases suggest avoiding ‘causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups’.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping speeches during Russian-Chinese meeting at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vadivostok, Russia, September 11, 2018. Source: Getty Images
Officials at the WHO skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet when naming the latest Covid variant in order to avoid “stigmatising” China. Source: Getty Images

The 'unofficial' reason behind the name

But there was reportedly another reason that wasn’t “officially spelt out” in press statements, according to the Telegraph.

A source at the WHO told the publication that these letters were “deliberately avoided” in order to avoid “stigmatising” China and the country’s premier Xi Jinping.

“They didn't want to say ‘Nu’ because it made people think it's a ‘new’ virus or there's a risk of confusion”, the source reportedly said.

“And yes, when they do these things, they don't want to end up stigmatising regions. And so they thought this would or could do that, so they skipped Xi too… to avoid stigmatising the region”.

Passengers wearing protective face masks use their mobile phones as they wait with their luggage at the Beijing West railway station amid the coronavirus pandemic in Beijing. Source: AAP
Passengers wait with their luggage at the Beijing West railway station amid the coronavirus pandemic in Beijing. Source: AAP

Social media reacts amid confusion

Nevertheless, the name of the new variant, which originated in South Africa, has caused a stir online.

Twitter was inundated with jokes as media outlets prematurely referred to the new strain as “Nu”.

“As a letter enthusiast, I feel sad for Nu and Xi not getting their moments,” one person posted.

“No sorry we’re not calling the new Covid strain ‘nu variant’, are we?” another said.

The WHO’s explanation only fuelled the banter.

“In a late move, Greece asks for a wider review of the overall naming regime, given the policy of avoiding stigmatising regions,” one Twitter user said.

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