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​Alpha to Omicron: Why COVID-19 Variants Have Greek Names

​Using letters of the alphabet to label virus mutations simplifies tracking, eases origin stigma

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Catherine McQueen / Getty Images

Another new COVID-19 label is now on the tips of our tongues: omicron. It has emerged as the latest twist in the pandemic that the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed a "variant of concern."

WHO is the global organization that has been tracking the pace of the pandemic and the steady stream of mutations — or variants — that have emerged over the past two years since the original coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was identified. WHO has also been assessing what the evolution of the virus will mean for transmission and severity of the illness.

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In May, WHO announced that it would begin naming variants according to the letters of the Greek alphabet. The idea was to give the variants names that would be easy for those of us who aren't scientists to understand. (Before it was dubbed omicron, scientists referred to the new variant as B.1.1.529.) Another factor that WHO weighed was a desire to eliminate any stigma attached to the country where a variant is first identified.

For example, the first variant, alpha, was initially discovered in the United Kingdom, but WHO officials didn't want to name it the British or U.K. variant.

Enter omicron, which is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. According to a WHO tracking page, there are currently seven "variants of interest" or "variants of concern." Not all variants rise to those worrisome levels, but they've still been given Greek letter designations. No variant has yet been deemed a "variant of high consequence," the highest threat level in the variant pecking order.

Two letters of the Greek alphabet were skipped to get to omicron: nu and xi. A WHO spokesman has said that nu would too easily be confused with "new" and that xi was skipped because it is a common family name. Xi Jinping also happens to be the name of the president of China.

Assuming WHO doesn't choose to skip over another Greek letter, the next variant is in line to be named pi.

COVID-19 Variants of Interest and Concern

Variants of Concern

  • Alpha, B.1.1.7, first seen in the United Kingdom. Designated on Dec. 18, 2020.
  • Beta,  B.1.351, first seen in South Africa. Designated on Dec. 18, 2020.
  • Gamma, P.1, first seen in Brazil. Designated on Jan. 11, 2021.
  • Delta, B.1.617.2, first seen in India. Designated on May 11, 2021.
  • Omicron, B.1.1.529, seen in multiple countries. Designated on Nov. 26, 2021.

Variants of Interest

  • Lambda, C.37, first seen in Peru. Designated on June 4, 2020.
  • Mu, B.1.621, first seen in Colombia. Designated on Aug. 30, 2021.

Source: WHO

Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.

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