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WHO explanation fails sniff test: Mu more common surname than Xi

WHO claims it skipped Xi for Omicron because it's a 'surname,' but Mu more common, while all previous Greek letters also surnames

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Global rankings of Mu and Xi surnames. (Forebears.io screenshots)

Global rankings of Mu and Xi surnames. (Forebears.io screenshots)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The World Health Organization's (WHO's) official explanation for skipping two letters in the Greek alphabet to name the latest COVID variant is not holding up to scrutiny.

The B.1.1.529 variant, which was first detected in South Africa, has 32 mutations in the spike protein, earning it the distinction of a new name. The next Greek letters in sequence were Nu and Xi, but the WHO skipped both in favor of Omicron on Nov. 26, leaving a scant nine letters left to name the inevitable new configurations of the virus.

The WHO has claimed Nu was rejected because it is similar to the English word "new" and Xi was jettisoned because it is a "common last name." This apparently was in reference to the Chinese surname Xi (習), which is roughly similar in pronunciation to the English word "she" (ʃiː) but the pronunciation of the Greek letter Xi is actually pronounced zaɪ in IPA.

Many pundits have suggested that Xi was skipped because it would draw derision of China's Chairman Xi Jinping (習近平), who the organization's Director-General Tedros Adhanom was quick to praise for his "transparency" at the start of the pandemic. On Sunday (Nov. 28), netizens on Twitter began to point out that Mu, the previous variant, is a far more common surname than Xi.

According to the website Forebears, Xi is the 708th most common surname in the world with 774,021 holders. The surname Mu, on the other hand, is the 527th most common in the world with 1,028,966 people bearing it.

The WHO's best practices for naming new diseases recommend avoiding "causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups." The explanation that Xi is offensive because it is a "common surname" is inconsistent given that Mu was used by the WHO, even though it is an even more common surname.

In addition, there was no apparent consideration given to the fact that Nu is also a surname found primarily in Myanmar and Honduras, with the focus only being on its possibly confusing meaning for English speakers. In fact, all the previous Greek letters before Omicron are documented surnames, defeating the WHO's entire premise of avoiding surnames with its variant names.

The naming decision seemed to indicate cherry-picking of the letters based on political considerations rather than the organization's stated guidelines. The latest naming fiasco by the WHO has only further eroded public trust in the organization, with netizens expressing their opinions on the real rationale for the skipping of Xi:

"They misspoke: 'important surname' not 'common surname.'"

"Not many Chinese presidents surnamed Mu."

"So then it wasn't the region but one man's ego?"

"It was a stupid decision further proving to already divided and untrusting population that @WHO is political."