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WHO, China conscious… Why is the new mutation ‘Omicron’ instead of ‘Nu·Xi’?

COVID-19 virus mockup. ⓒGettyImagesBank

There have been claims that the World Health Organization (WHO) took notice of China when naming a new variant of the novel coronavirus infection (COVID-19).

On the 26th (local time), multiple foreign media, such as Fox News and the New York Post, reported that the WHO named the new mutation (B.1.1.529) of COVID-19 (B.1.1.529) recently reported in southern Africa as ‘Omicron’. Various speculations are emerging.

The WHO has been naming the viruses in Greek alphabetical order in order to prevent the stigma effect on countries that have reported COVID-19 mutations. According to this principle, the 12 mutations discovered so far were given names in order from ‘Alpha’ to ‘Mu’.

However, the name of the 13th virus, first reported to the WHO on the 24th, was decided as the 15th letter, ‘Omicron’. The 13th ‘Nu’ and the 14th ‘Xi’ were skipped. Regarding this, it was argued that the WHO deliberately avoided ‘Xi’ because it had the same spelling as ‘Xi’, which is used to indicate the name of Chinese President Xi Jinping in English-speaking countries. US Republican Senator Ted Cruz tweeted “If the WHO fears the Chinese Communist Party like this, how can they believe that China will summon them when they try to cover up a deadly epidemic,” he said.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley tweeted, “I’m concerned that the WHO appears to be trying to avoid discomfort with the Chinese government again.”

Martin Culdoff, an infectious disease scholar at Harvard Medical School, also posted a picture of the Greek alphabet on Twitter, saying, “WHO was able to avoid ‘Xi’ by skipping the alphabet and calling it ‘Omicron’.”

Harvard Medical School epidemiologist Martin Culdoff Twitter capture

As the controversy grew, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said in a statement, “‘Nu’ can be easily confused with the word new, and ‘Xi’ is a surname that is used a lot in the past. “WHO recommends avoiding names that may cause harm to culture, society, country, region, occupation or race,” it said. It means taking into account everyone who uses the surname ‘Si’, not necessarily because of President Xi.

Meanwhile, Omicron, which was first discovered in South Africa on the 9th, was confirmed in Hong Kong and Israel, followed by infections in Belgium, the UK, Germany and Italy.

WHO has designated Omicron as a variant of concern. Currently, there are five variants of concern: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and omicron. Experts are concerned that the omicron mutation may be much more contagious than the delta mutation and may be able to evade vaccines.

In order to prevent the inflow of Omicron, the government has designated eight countries including South Africa as quarantine-strengthening countries, dangerous countries, and exempted from quarantine from 00:00 on the 28th. Countries with stricter quarantine measures include South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Correspondent Kim So-young, Donga.com [email protected]

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