New Covid variant called omicron not Xi to avoid offending Chinese ruler

·3-min read
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends an event commemorating the 110th anniversary of Xinhai Revolution at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing - Andy Wong/AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends an event commemorating the 110th anniversary of Xinhai Revolution at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing - Andy Wong/AP

Officials at the World Health Organisations skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet when naming the latest Covid variant in order to avoid “stigmatising” China, and perhaps its premier Xi Jinping.

A WHO source confirmed the letters Nu and Xi had been deliberately avoided. Nu had been skipped to avoid confusion with the word “new” and Xi had been ducked to “avoid stigmatising the region”, they said.  

Since May, new variants of Sars-COV-2 have been given sequential names from the Greek alphabet under a naming convention devised by an expert committee at the WHO. 

The system was chosen to prevent variants becoming known by the names of the places where they were first detected, which can be stigmatising and discriminatory. 

Initially, most commentators assumed the B.1.1.529 variant, which was first found in Botswana, would be given the name Nu - the 13th letter of the Greek alphabet - but plays on the word “new” immediately spread across the internet.

Then on Friday evening, after a meeting of the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), the WHO announced that two letters would in fact be skipped and the new variant named Omicron.

The reasoning for avoiding the numeral Xi, which is also the name of the Chinese premier, was not officially spelt out by the WHO in its press statement on the virus but was explained to The Telegraph on inquiry on Friday evening. 

A visitors walks in front of pictures showing Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the Museum of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing - ROMAN PILIPEY/Shutterstock
A visitors walks in front of pictures showing Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the Museum of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing - ROMAN PILIPEY/Shutterstock

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

“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”.

All pandemics are inherently political in nature, and the decision to avoid the use of Xi is perhaps not surprising given the diplomatic optics.

Nevertheless, news of the change and its explanation caused a stir and some hilarity on social media. 

“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 wrote.

On Saturday the WHO media office was giving out a slightly adjusted reasoning.

Dr Margaret Harris of the WHO told the New York Post: “[For] Nu the reasoning was people would get confused thinking it was the new variant, rather than a name.

“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.”

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