How did Covid variants go from Delta to Omnicon?

At the end of May 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) adopted a new system of naming Covid variants of concern or special interest with letters of the Greek alphabet. It did this to avoid stigmatising countries or regions where such a new variant was first identified.

At the time, there were four variants of this kind and we all remember the Delta variant as the one that soon became dominant worldwide. Since then, there have been eight other variants which have had a Greek letter assigned to them, but most of us missed these because they did not rival the Delta variant in terms of concern or transmissibility.

The thirteenth letter in the Greek alphabet is ‘Nu’ and the WHO decided not to use this letter because it sounds so much like ‘new’. The fourteenth letter is ‘Xi’ and it was decided not to use this because it is a very common family name in China (and, as it happens, the surname of the current president of the country).

The fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet is Omnicon and this is the letter assigned to the variant initially identified in South Africa which it is feared is much more transmissible than any of the previous variants. At this stage, we do not know serious are the symptoms and how effective current vaccines will be against it.

Next up? Inevitably the WHO will name more variants but they will not all make the news. The next letter to be used will be ‘Pi’.


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