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How did the omicron coronavirus variant get its name? And how do you pronounce it?

COVID-19 testing specialist Susana Blasco reaches forward with a swab to test a driver at a drive-up coronavirus testing location Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in Bellingham, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

COVID-19 testing specialist Susana Blasco reaches forward with a swab to test a driver at a drive-up coronavirus testing location Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in Bellingham, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Associated Press

As the omicron coronavirus variant sweeps across the United States, so do questions about the mutated virus — some more consequential than others.

Figuring out how to pronounce “omicron” — and how the variant got that name in the first place — may not be among the most pressing concerns, but they still have some scratching their heads.

Here’s what you need to know:

How did the omicron variant get its name?

It’s named after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet under a naming scheme created by the World Health Organization, USA Today reported.

The earlier delta variant also was named after a Greek letter.

The WHO adopted the naming process for coronavirus variants to get away from naming viruses or variants after the places where they first came to prominence, which can be confusing and stigmatizing, USA Today reported.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, told the publication.

When the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet are used up, the WHO will come up with another naming system.

How do you pronounce omicron?

“Omicron” appeared on a list of 2021’s most mispronounced words compiled by the U.S. Captioning Company, the Associated Press reported.

So what’s the correct pronunciation? It depends.

In the United States, omicron is typically pronounced “ä-mə-krän” or “ō-mə-krän” according to Merriam-Webster. In Britain, it’s more often pronounced “ō-mī-krän.”

Omnicron, however, is straight out wrong.

“I don’t think it really matters that much, honestly,” said Apoorva Mandavilli, who reports on the coronavirus for a New York Times podcast.

What is the omicron variant?

The omicron variant was first reported by researchers in South Africa on Nov. 24 after several doctors noticed symptoms among their patients that differed slightly compared to those caused by the delta variant, the dominant version of the germ spreading globally, McClatchy News reported.

Genetic sequencing revealed the variant sports a large number of mutations unseen in other variants.

Federal health officials confirmed the first omicron case in the U.S. on Dec. 1, in a fully vaccinated California resident who recently returned from South Africa, McClatchy News reported.

More than 73% of the new COVID-19 cases in the United States the week of Dec. 12 were from the omicron variant, the Associated Press reported.

Experts are still researching numerous questions about the omicron variant, including whether it causes more severe disease than other versions of the coronavirus.

Early data suggests vaccines still protect you against COVID-19 hospitalization and death, no matter the variant involved, but booster shots offer critical protection against infection compared to primary doses.

“All of us have a date with omicron,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Associated Press. “If you’re going to interact with society, if you’re going to have any type of life, omicron will be something you encounter, and the best way you can encounter this is to be fully vaccinated.”

Follow more of our reporting on Full coverage of coronavirus in Washington


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Don Sweeney has been a newspaper reporter and editor in California for more than 25 years. He has been a real-time reporter based at The Sacramento Bee since 2016.

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