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What We Know About the New Covid Variant, Omicron

Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson, makers of vaccines approved for use in the United States, and AstraZeneca, which is widely used in Europe, have all said they were studying Omicron, and they expressed confidence in their ability to tailor their formulations to target the variant.

When the W.H.O. began to name emerging variants of the coronavirus, they turned to the Greek alphabet — Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on — to make them easier to describe. The first “variant of concern,” Alpha, was identified in Britain in late 2020, soon followed by Beta in South Africa.

But veterans of American sorority and fraternity life might have noticed the system has skipped the next two letters in the alphabetical order: Nu and Xi.

Officials thought Nu would be too easily confused with “new,” but the next letter, Xi, is a bit more complicated. W.H.O. officials said it was a common last name, and therefore potentially confusing. Some noted that it is also the name of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.

A spokesman for the W.H.O. said the organization’s policy was designed to avoid “causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”

Next in line? Omicron. (Here’s how it’s pronounced, and here.)

Like Delta, which was first identified in India, the rise of yet another worrisome variant in the developing world points to a more fundamental problem facing the global community more than a year-and-a-half into the pandemic.

The hoarding of vaccines by wealthy countries while poorer nations struggle to obtain them provides more opportunities for SARS CoV-2 to replicate and mutate among the unvaccinated. More mutations mean there are more chances for the virus to become more infectious, immune-resistant or lethal.

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