Since June, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is no longer calling newly-discovered coronavirus "variants of concern" after the country where they were first detected them, but instead after letters of the Greek alphabet.
In practice, this meant that the variant discovered in the United Kingdom in late 2020 was named Alpha, the first one in South Africa was labelled Beta, the one in Brazil became Gamma, and the most infectious one so far – initially detected in India – is now known as the Delta variant.
So-called "variants of interest" also get a Greek letter but as they usually do not spread widely and pose such a threat, those variants (such as Eta, Iota, Lambda and Mu) are less used and less well-known.
Yet despite the apparent logic in labelling successive variants with Greek letters, it was not only classicists who spotted the jump from the lesser-known 'Mu' variant to the latest 'Omicron' that dominates headlines. Surely 'Nu' came next?
Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst took to Twitter to explain the WHO's choice to skip two letters of the Greek alphabet: the letter 'Nu' was passed over because it would have caused too much confusion with the word 'New'.
And what about 'Xi' (which follows Nu)? Well, the use of the Greek alphabet to name the variants was largely driven by a diplomatic concern that countries would be stigmatised for detecting new strains of the coronavirus.
In this same spirit of diplomacy, Van Ranst explained that the WHO feared 'Xi' would be linked to the Chinese President Xi Jinping and tactfully opted for the more neutral 'Omicron'.
This means that we are now at the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. Only nine more to go until we reach 'Omega' – the last letter.
What happens then? Will the pandemic have ended, or will the WHO start using another alphabet?
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