When the Omicron variant of Covid-19 first came to light, its etymology created quite a stir on social media. There were memes being made, Google searches on the pronunciation of the Greek letter Omicron, crypto tokens with the same name surging, bands called Omicron rising from obscurity and various doctored images floating around claiming this comic strip or that movie had “predicted” the variant.
‘Omicron’ comes from Middle English, from Greek o mikron, literally meaning ‘small o’. It was named by the World Health Organisation (WHO) after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. The variant is pronounced differently in both US and the UK. The WHO has been using Greek alphabets to name Covid-19 variants, the one before Omicron having been termed the Delta variant. CNN reported that Delta was followed by eight others who had fizzled out for the most part. Among them were Epsilon, Iota and Lambda.
Scientists in France have now identified a new, much more mutated strain- named IHU B.1.640.2 variant. The B.1.640.2 has not been identified in other countries so far or labelled a variant under investigation by the WHO.
Why is WHO using Greek alphabets to name Covid-19 variants?
The WHO website states that Greek alphabets have been chosen to name Covid-19 variants as they are easy to say and remember. Experts around the world had convened to come to the decision. The website states that scientific names can be difficult to recall and hence often lend themselves to misreporting. This leads to people calling the variants by the name of the place where they originate, which can end up being stigmatising and discriminatory. The Greek alphabets are supposed to act as labels and do not replace the scientific names.
What comes after Omicron and will it trend in 2022?
The Greek alphabet has 24 letters. What follows Omicron is perhaps the most popular of Greek alphabets, all thanks to math: Pi. The currently designated variants of concern (VOC) are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron. The variants of interest (VOI) are the relatively unknown Lambda and Mu. So, could Pi trend in 2022 as Omicron did in 2021? Potentially. It should depend on whether or not the next variant emerges, and if so, whether it becomes a VOC or not.
India’s top virologist Dr Gagandeep Kang is of the opinion that people should learn to live with the coronavirus and its variants as they will continue to emerge. She further cautioned that there will be many Covid waves “time and again”, according to news agency ANI. “We will have to learn to live with SARS-CoV-2 and its variants which will continue to emerge. There will be many waves, time and again. But fortunately, Omicron seems comparatively less severe than other variants,” she said. If this holds true, a Pi variant may well be on the horizon.
There are 9 more letters left after Omicron, including Pi. The Greek alphabet ends with Omega. While all of the Greek alphabets are used in various scientific and mathematical equations, Pi also finds a mention in the film “Life of Pi,” which is, thankfully due to its subject matter, unlikely to be perceived as having predicted a Covid-19 variant. However, it also sounds exactly like the word “pie”, something similar to which had caused the Greek alphabet “Nu” to be skipped in naming a Covid-19 variant.
Why were Nu and Xi skipped?
As per a CNN report, before Omicron and after Mu, the two letters Nu and Xi were skipped by WHO. Nu was skipped because it sounds too much like “new”. Xi, on the other hand, is a popular Chinese surname, though it is pronounced differently in Greek. It has also been speculated that Xi Jinping being the name of the paramount leader of China also had something to do with WHO’s decision.