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COVID-19: How Omicron variant got its name

Since the outbreak of the latest variant of the coronavirus (COVID- 19) B.1.1.529 last month, some members of the global community have wondered how its name, ‘Omicron’, was derived.


A clinical virologist, Dr. Abike Fowotade, explained that since 2005, viruses are no longer named after their country of origin to prevent stigmatisation.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) uses Greek letters to name variants because these names are easier to communicate than scientific designations like B.1.617.2. Omicron is derived from the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet and is “equivalent to a short-sounded English letter ‘O.”


According to the WHO, the 13th and 14th Greek letters (nu and xi) were skipped over because “nu” sounds like “new,” and “xi” is also a common surname. Earlier on during the pandemic, new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus were given scientific names with a complex combination of letters and numbers.


It meant that for shorthand, variants typically endedupbeingreferredtoby the country where they were first identified — a system which experts said resulted in stigma against the people of those countries as well as some confusion and misrepresentation. Fowotade said WHO and itsinternationalnetworksof experts had earlier agreed to name evolving variants according to the sequence of the Greek alphabets.


While the scientific and medical community are knowledgeable on how such names are coined, some laymen have not hidden their curiosity on why the new variant should be named ‘Omicron’.


Even some schools of thought have asked why Omicron was not named after the country where it was first detected. For the people in this group, something in thenamecouldhavethebackground of the country where Omicron was first detected.


“The letters of the Greek alphabet are: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda, mu, nu1, xi, omicron, pi1, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon, phi, chi1, psi1and omega.


“The last variant was mu and the next was meant to be nu1, however, it was felt that this could be confused for ‘new’ virus.”


Thereafter, Xi was considered but happened to be a popular Chinese name. For example, the President of China is called Xi Jinping; hence it was also skipped for Omicron.


“We have eight more potential names before we get to Omega, which is the last alphabet.” It is only when the WHO labelsavariantasconcerning that it is given a proper name.


And ‘Omicron’ follows WHO’s existing trend for naming thesevariantsof concernafter theGreekalphabet. The WHO names the  variants after Greek letters to help simplify coronavirus discussions and prevent stigma being attached to any geographic group.

In addition, the WHO on Friday said the COVID-19 Omicron variant has been detected in 38 countries, up from23 twodaysearlier, with early data suggesting the strain is more contagious than delta.


In addition, a Nigerian research scientist based in Singapore, Dr Jonathan Obaje, said since Omicron’s discovery, global clinical data has confirmed that variants of COVID-19 virus are less lethal than earlier variants.


Obaje, a former Vice President of Nigeria in the Diaspora, Singapore, said this on Sunday, according to an agency report. According to him, this is the second week of the “African Omicron” discovery.


So far, clinical data from across the globe have confirmed that the Omicron variant of COVID- 19 is less lethal than the Delta and other earlier variants.” It will be recalled that South Africa was the first country to report the highly mutated new variant. More than 70 per cent of all the virus genomes it sequenced last month have been of the new variant.




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