The World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) on Saturday explained why it skipped two Greek letters ‘Nu’ and ‘Xi’ and named B.1.1.529 ‘Omicron’. Some people have argued that naming B.1.1.529 ‘Xi’ would have been associated with Xi Jinping, the President of China where COVID-19 was first detected.
“Two letters were skipped- Nu and Xi – because Nu is too easily confounded with “new” and Xi was not used because it is a common surname and WHO best practices for naming new diseases (developed in conjunction with FAO and OIE back in 2015) suggest avoiding “causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups”,” WHO Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses if specific mutations and combinations of mutations alter the behavior of the virus.
The TAG-VE was convened on November 26, 2021, to assess the SARS-CoV-2 variant: B.1.1.529. which was first detected in Botswana on November 11 and because spreading in South Africa in the past few days before it was reported to the WHO.
The advisory group wrote that the B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on November 24, 2021.
“The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021,” it said.
TAG-VE added, “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. 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. Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.
“There are a number of studies underway and the TAG-VE will continue to evaluate this variant. WHO will communicate new findings with Member States and to the public as needed.
“Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a VOC, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron.”