When the World Health Organization began to name the emerging variants of the coronavirus, officials turned to the Greek alphabet to make it easier for the public to understand the evolution: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on.
Now the alphabet has created its own political headache. When it came time to name the potentially dangerous new variant that has emerged in southern Africa, the next letter in alphabetical order was Nu, which officials thought would be too easily confused with “new.”
The letter after that was even more complicated: Xi, a name that in its transliteration, though not its pronunciation, happens to belong to the leader of China, Xi Jinping. So they skipped both and named the new variant Omicron.
“‘Nu’ is too easily confounded with ‘new,’ and ‘Xi’ was not used because it is a common last name,” a spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic, said on Saturday in an emailed response to questions about skipping the two letters.
The organization’s policy, he went on, requires “avoiding causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”
The organization did not initially explain why it jumped from Mu, a lesser variant first documented in Colombia, to Omicron. The omission resulted in speculation over the reasons. For some, it rekindled criticism that the organization has been far too deferential in its dealings with the Chinese government.
“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?” Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, wrote on Twitter.
There is no evidence that the Chinese had any say in naming the new variant, known scientifically as the SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.529. Some variants have proved less transmissible, but Omicron could be the most worrisome new version since Delta.
Throughout the pandemic, the W.H.O. has sought to avoid the once common practice of referring to health threats with geographic terms: Spanish flu, West Nile virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Zika and Ebola.
That reflected concerns among scientists about the risk of stigmatizing places or peoples, but it was also seen in the early months of the pandemic as deferential to China, which has an influential role in global health affairs.
Chinese officials have reacted angrily to efforts to associate the pandemic with the country or Wuhan, the central city where it first spread in the fall of 2019. China’s fiercest critics in the United States, including then President Donald J. Trump and his aides, persisted anyway, at times using sophomoric and racist slurs.
“The novel coronavirus affects everyone and needs to be tackled with joint efforts, instead of fear-mongering in a xenophobic way,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at the time.