How The COVID-19 Omicron Variant Got Its Name

The World Health Organization (WHO) is in charge of naming COVID-19 variants and settled on using letters from the Greek alphabet as an easy way to say and remember them. These letters do not replace the scientific names, but they simplify communications about the different forms of the virus. In addition to the latest variant identified in November, the organization lists four variants of concern — Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. You may not have heard of some of the other named variants, like Zeta and Eta, because they did not result in a major outbreak and were not considered variants of concern, per Fox 4.

The most recent variant of the virus, detected in South Africa, is classified as B.1.1.529, or Omicron, according to CNN. There are several coronavirus variants with the B.1. label (via Healthline). This particular marker helps to link any variants to the virus that emerged in Italy in the spring of 2020 (via Advisory Board).

Two Greek letters were skipped to get to Omicron

Because the World Health Organization wants to keep the labeling system of coronavirus variants easy, it opted to skip over some Greek letters that might cause some confusion — specifically, the letters Nu and Xi. "Nu is too easily confounded with 'new' and Xi was not used because it is a common surname," the organization told CNN in a statement. The organization also said that it aims to follow best practices when naming new diseases and avoids any names that could "cause offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups." The next letter after Xi in the Greek alphabet is Omicron.

It is normal to see viruses mutate. COVID-19 is an RNA virus, and these kinds of viruses mutate gradually over time. Geographic locations often result in distinct viruses, which is why you will see certain strains linked to specific areas. It is also possible that there will be more variants of coronavirus as it spreads throughout populations, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.