The World Health Organization was accused of pandering to China after announcing Friday that the latest COVID-19 variant has been named “omicron” after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, skipping the letters “nu” and “xi.”
The English spelling of the Chinese president’s name is Xi Jinping, and while his name and the 14th Greek letter are pronounced differently, the similarities on paper were close enough to draw a fresh round of rebukes over WHO’s alleged catering to China over the virus first detected in Wuhan.
George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley said that the “concern is that W.H.O. is again avoiding any discomfort for the Chinese government.”
“It is not clear if there is another reason for the decision to skip over Nu and Xi, but W.H.O.‘s history with the investigation into the origins of the pandemic has fueled speculation as to a political motive,” tweeted Mr. Turley.
Among those taking swipes at the organization for bypassing the Greek letter xi were frequent WHO critics Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican and Donald Trump Jr.
“If the WHO is this scared of the Chinese Communist Party, how can they be trusted to call them out the next time they’re trying to cover up a catastrophic global pandemic?” asked Mr. Cruz in a Friday tweet.
In a statement to The Washington Times, WHO said that the 13th and 14th Greek letters were passed over because “nu” looks too much like “new,” and “xi” would violate the organization’s policy against offending a region.
“’Nu’ is too easily confounded with ‘new,’ and ‘Xi’ was not used because it is a common last name, and WHO best practices for naming disease suggest avoiding ‘causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups,’” said WHO in an email.
Mr. Turley questioned the explanation. “Some are now quoting W.H.O. as saying that Nu was avoided because it sounds like ‘new’ while Xi was skipped to avoid ‘stigmatizing a region.’ Xi has not yet attained region status.”
He quipped that it could be called “the Voldemort strain,” referring to the villain in the Harry Potter books known as “he who must not be named,” prompting historian Richard Samuelson to reply, “You resisted the urge to write ‘Xi who must not be named?’”
The 14th letter of the Greek alphabet, although it is represented in English as “Xi,” is pronounced /gz/ as in most English pronunciations of “exactly.” It is totally unrelated to the Chinese name “Xi,” which is a Latin-alphabet representation of a pictograph that is pronounced like the English feminine pronoun “she.”
But some other commentators said the decision made sense. “They will not name a virus strain after a current world leader, that is just common sense! The WHO has to be neutral, and the naming conventions are pretty clear,” said a post on the @GBoyd1982 account.
WHO’S Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution said Friday that the Omicron, first detected in South Africa, has been labeled a “variant of concern [VOC].”
Previously, the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Epsilon variants were classified as variants of concern, although they have since been downgraded to “variants being monitored,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The highly contagious Delta variant remains a variant of concern, along with the Omicron variant.
“This [Omicron] variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” said WHO in a Friday press release. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the law school at which Mr. Turley teaches.