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COVID-19 - what do all these Greek letters mean?

Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 26.01.2023 | 1 min read

The initial outbreak of COVID-19 was in Wuhan, China, and many people referred to the disease and any subsequent variants by the city or country of origin. The World Health Organisation (WHO) felt this caused undue discrimination and stigma against certain countries and places, and may deter them from declaring new variants they had found.

They needed to find a naming framework that avoided causing offence to any cultural, ethnic or social groups, and decided to name each variant after a letter of the Greek alphabet.

The initial virus was called novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2 – not too catchy, so you may not have heard of it. Subsequent variants were named Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta and are to continue in this manner.

I heard they skipped over some letters?

Notably, when naming the most recent variant, Omicron, the WHO skipped over both Nu and Xi letters. Nu was skipped as it was too similar to ‘new’ or 'novel', the initial name. 'Xi' was avoided as it is a common first name in China, including that of President Xi Jinping.

There are official scientific names that are still present but are too complicated for general use, therefore the Greek naming system remains an easier and unbiased approach.

There are 24 letters of the Greek alphabet and considering we may skip some more, what happens when that runs out? Well, scientists have hinted that they may start using constellations next.

Hopefully, we don’t have to get to that.

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