Omicron: How New Covid Strain Got Its Name

by : Hannah Smith on :
Omicron: How New Covid Strain Got Its NameAlamy

After months of talking about the Delta variant, ‘Omicron’ is making all the headlines over fears it could spread quickly and see restrictions implemented again.

The sinister-sounding name has caused some confusion, but is part of the same Greek alphabet naming system adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) to refer to variants earlier this year.


The system was reportedly put in place to avoid using the scientific names of the variants, which are a jumble of letters and numbers the WHO says ‘can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting’. It’s also designed to reduce ‘stigma’, with the variants having previously been referred to by their country of origin.

Testing for Omicron variant (Alamy)Alamy

For example, the new variant first emerged in South Africa, and is officially the B.1.1.529 variant, but has been labelled Omicron by the WHO.

Omicron is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, but has been assigned to only the seventh variant to be labelled a ‘variant of concern’ by the WHO.


According to the New York Times, there are 12 variants that have been given Greek alphabet names, with two letters skipped by the WHO before they reached Omicron.

Covid-19 Omicron variant (Alamy)Alamy

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Those letters were ‘Nu’ – which a WHO spokesperson said could be confused with the word ‘new’ – and ‘Xi’, which is a common Chinese surname, and notably the surname of Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Tarik Jasarevic added that the naming practice was used to avoid ‘causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups’.


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Hannah Smith

Hannah is a London-based journalist covering news and features for UNILAD. She's especially interested in social and political activism.

Topics: News, COVID-19, Now, Omicron


New York Times
  1. New York Times

    How Omicron, the new Covid-19 variant, got its name