Variants? It's All Greek to Me!

Nurse's Blog, statdate 2021.12.22

In the interest of full disclosure, let me begin by saying that I am not an epidemiologist, immunologist, or a virologist. What I am is a concerned nurse who wants to help make reliable information easier to find and understand. As a nurse, my education has included relevant topics such as disease prevention, pathophysiology, microbiology, and pharmacology. This is a blog. Information found here is generalized and should not be used as a substitute for medical advice; please consult your personal healthcare provider before acting on any information shown here.

All information here is, to the best of my knowledge, current as of the date this page was written (date under the title of this page). This page may be updated as I find new information. A complete list of cited references is included at the end of this page.

Alphabet to Omegabet

The World Health Organization (WHO), along with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and similar organizations internationally, have assigned letters of the Greek alphabet to SARS‑CoV‑2 (the virus that causes COVID‑19) variants of interest or concern. Early on, variants were commonly referred to by their countries of origin, but this is no longer practical due to the fact multiple variants have emerged from single countries; for example, the Epsilon and Iota variants both originated in the USA. Scientists track the variants using identifiers that work like a family tree, helping them understand similarities between variants, but these identifiers are not easily recognizable by the public; for example, the Delta variant is identified as B.1.617.2 and the Omicron variant is identified as B.1.1.529.

To anyone who actually speaks Greek, allow me to apologize in advance. I am aware that I, along with most English-speakers in the world, have mangled the language. I know that many of the letters such as veeta and psee have been replaced with things that are easier for us to pronounce. I'm sorry, but I'm going to be using the English version of Greek on this post. That said, the Greek alphabet is composed of 24 letters, starting with Alpha (Α) and ending with Omega (Ω). The most recently declared variant of concern is Omicron (Ο), the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.

Are We Really Already on Omicron?

We sure are. However, the 13th and 14th letters of the Greek alphabet were skipped (and with good reason).

The 13th letter of the Greek alphabet is Nu (Ν), which is pronounced "new." Can you imagine the confusion if it hadn't been skipped? I picture it going something like this:

It's certainly entertaining to think about, but it really was a good decision to skip Nu. The 14th letter of the Greek alphabet is Xi (Ξ). In accordance with the WHO's published best practices for naming diseases, Xi was also skipped. This is because they try to avoid naming diseases using a common person's name, and Xi is a common name in some Asian cultures. The following table goes through the Greek alphabet as well as any variants that have been assigned to letters in that alphabet.

  Letter Phonetic First Documented Case(s)¹ First Designated¹ Current Designation¹ Lineage¹
1 Alpha (Α/α) al-fuh UK September 2020 December 18, 2020 Variant of Concern B.1.1.7
2 Beta (Β/β) bay-tuh S. Africa May 2020 December 18, 2020 Variant of Concern B.1.351
3 Gamma (Γ/γ) gam-muh Brazil November 2020 January 11, 2021 Variant of Concern P.1
4 Delta (Δ/δ) del-tuh India October 2020 April 4, 2021 Variant of Concern B.1.617.2
5 Epsilon (Ε/ε) ep-see-lawn USA March 2020 March 5, 2021 Formerly Monitored Variant B.1.429
6 Zeta (Ζ/ζ) zay-tuh Brazil April 2020 March 17, 2021 Formerly Monitored Variant P.2
7 Eta (Η/η) ay-tuh Multiple December 2020 March 17, 2021 Variant Under Monitoring B.1.525
8 Theta (Θ/θ) thay-tuh Philippines January 2021 March 24, 2021 Formerly Monitored Variant P.3
9 Iota (Ι/ι) eye-o-tuh USA November 2020 March 24, 2021 Variant Under Monitoring B.1.526
10 Kappa (Κ/κ) cap-uh India October 2020 April 4, 2021 Variant Under Monitoring B.1.617.1
11 Lambda (Λ/λ) lam-duh Peru December 2020 June 14, 2021 Variant of Interest C.37
12 Mu (Μ/μ) mew Colombia January 2021 August 30, 2021 Variant of Interest B.1.621
13 Nu (Ν/ν) new SKIPPED²
14 Xi (Ξ/ξ) see
15 Omicron (Ο/ο) oh-meh-cron Multiple November 2021 November 24, 2021 Variant of Concern B.1.1.529
17 Rho (Ρ/ρ) row
18 Sigma (Σ/σ/ς) sig-muh
19 Tau (Τ/τ) taw
20 Upsilon (Υ/υ) up-see-lawn
21 Phi (Φ/φ) fy
22 Chi (Χ/χ) kie
23 Psi (Ψ/ψ) sigh
24 Omega (Ω/ω) oh-may-guh
¹ (World Health Organization, 2021)
² (Conklin, 2021)

But why are We Already on Omicron?

To understand why new variants are coming along so rapidly, I'm going to need to discuss some basic genetics. Animal cells store their genetic information in the form of DNA. Viruses, on the other hand, may store their genetic information in the form of DNA or RNA. Structurally speaking, DNA is significantly more robust than RNA. Think of DNA as a ladder - it has two side rails with many rungs suspended between the two rails. RNA, however, only has one side rail and its rungs are just sticking out of that single rail. When handled delicately, RNA can hold its shape and serve its purpose; but in real-world situations, it won't last long before at least one of those rungs will fall off.

DNA is sturdy, so viruses that store their genetic information in the form of DNA don't change much. Viruses that store their genetic information in the form of RNA, however, go through rapid changes because the rungs start getting damaged - this leads to frequent mutations. Many viral RNA mutations have no result or result in a virus that can no longer function, but a handful of mutations result in a virus with new traits. Since mutations in RNA viruses are happening all the time, the "successful" mutations lead to the creation of new variants. Influenza viruses, for example, are RNA viruses. Influenza's frequent mutation is a major contributor to the reason that flu shots need to be reformulated every year. Coronaviruses are also RNA viruses, so as long as SARS‑CoV‑2 is infecting a large number of people, it will continue to rapidly produce new variants.


Let's try and avoid getting all the way to Omega, shall we? I realize that coronaviruses have been around for a long, long time and that we'll likely never see their elimination, but can we at least try to control this particular coronavirus? Remember, it appears that practicing COVID‑19 precautions like masking and social distancing has already had the great side effect of eradicating a strain of influenza (Koutsakos, et al., 2021). I truly believe that getting back to normal is possible if everybody can just do their part. Wear your mask, wash your hands, and get vaccinated if you haven't already. Thank you.

REMINDER: Information found here is generalized and should not be used as a substitute for medical advice; please consult your personal healthcare provider before acting on any information shown here.


Conklin, A. (2021, November 27). WHO skips over Greek letters 'nu' and 'xi,' names new variant 'omicron.' Fox News.

Koutsakos, M., Wheatley, A. K., Laurie, K., Kent, S. J., & Rockman, S. (2021). Influenza lineage extinction during the COVID‑19 pandemic?. Nature reviews. Microbiology, 19(12), 741–742.

World Health Organization. (2021, December 13). Tracking SARS-CoV-2 variants. Retrieved December 20, 2021, from