A new variant of the coronavirus is causing uncertainty in global markets as researchers look to learn more about the viral strain.
The omicron variant may be more transmissible than previous variants of the virus and has been detected in more than a dozen countries.
It’s also causing some confusion over how to pronounce the letter in the Greek alphabet, even fooling President Joe Biden.
“The delta variant and now the omnicron,” he said in a press conference Monday. Biden also said the omicron variant “is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
Why is it called the omicron variant?
When a variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is identified, the World Health Organization labels it with a letter of the Greek alphabet, the organization explains on its website.
The WHO explained the Greek letters would be easier to remember than complex scientific names (like B.1.1.529 used to refer to Omicron). Because those scientific names were hard to remember, “people often resorted to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory,” the WHO said in May.
It’s important people discussing the virus and variants can easily communicate, NBC News medical expert Dr. John Torres explained on LX News.
“It’s very important that people understand what the name of it is, because you’re talking about a variety of different variants out there,” Torres said.
How do you pronounce omicron?
You don’t sound out the "O" like you would in the sentence, “Oh no, another variant!” You pronounce it "ahh," like in the word "already."
And there is no letter "N" in the name — it's not Omnicron!
Why did WHO skip the letters Nu and Xi of the Greek alphabet?
The WHO labeled other recently detected variants with the Greek letters Lambda and Mu. The next two letters in the Greek alphabet are Nu and Xi, but the organization skipped over them to avoid confusion.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the name Nu was skipped because it could be confused with the English word "new." And the name Xi could be mistaken for a common surname in China (which is also the surname of Chinese President Xi Jinping).
Is the omicron variant dangerous?
A paper from the WHO about omicron recommends countries “accelerate COVID-19 vaccination coverage as rapidly as possible,” with a focus on vulnerable populations. People who have not received their shots should get them, the paper says.
WHO designated omicron as a “variant of concern,” which means it may have a potential for higher transmissibility or resistance to vaccines and other treatments, like monoclonal antibodies or the COVID pill. Further research about the variant is still needed.
“One of the things we do know is it appears to be much more transmissible in South Africa, where it was first reported to the World Health Organization,” Torres said. “But we don't know if that's going to hold true in other areas, as well, because these variants compete with each other. Delta is the dominant one right now, and if this one becomes more dominant around the world, it ... could be more transmissible [than Delta]. And that's the big concern right now, but the honest answer is we don't know. We'll know more in a week or two.”
If you're worried and want to be protected, make sure to get fully vaccinated and get a booster shot after six months, Torres said.
"We think that is going to protect you from ... the omicron variant. We don't know because it's only been around for about a week, but by all indications, it should, and by the history of vaccines and viruses, that's what we think will happen. ... You're still going to get more protection than if you don't have the vaccine."