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Why is Omicron a “COVID variant of concern?”

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(AP Photo/Andy Wong)

The discovery of a new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, in South Africa this week is causing alarm because it spreads rapidly and may outsmart current vaccines.

And, it might already be ripping through the United States, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The variant, Omicron, named after a letter in the Greek alphabet, has been labeled a “variant of concern.”

Omicron is the only variant to get that designation since Delta emerged in India in late 2020.

Why is it so concerning?

Omicron’s spike protein has about 30 mutations, double the Delta variant, which indicates it spreads more easily.

Does Omicron make you sicker?

There’s no indication that the variant will cause a more severe illness, but reinfection is more likely with Omicron than with other variants.

What are the symptoms?

Fortunately, there are no new “unusual” symptoms associated with this variant. In fact, asymptomatic cases have been reported by South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

Scientists say it’s too soon to tell if our current vaccines will help deter the transmission of Omicron and the question will take a few weeks to answer.

Why did the WHO skip two Greek letters in naming Omicron?

To avoid confusion and prevent the perception of blaming China.

When the Mu variant got its name in August, the Greek letter Nu moved to the front of the line. But the WHO decided the letter Nu was too similar to the English word “new.”

The Greek letter xi was next alphabetically, but the WHO decided against that one as well because xi is identical to the common last name Xi and China’s president Xí Jìnpíng, which would violate WHO’s best practices for naming diseases.

Through its naming practices, the WHO aims “to minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”