IP Law Update: WHO sued for trademark infringement over Omicron naming

Written by Anamaria Correal, Trademark Attorney

On 30 November, an ophthalmologist clinic in Russia sued the World Health Organization (WHO) for calling the new Covid-19 strain as their registered trademark.

The CEO of the Omicron Network of ophthalmology clinics, Alexandar Padar, recently said:

Our name is a registered trademark, primarily in the field of medicine and health care, since this is our main activity. The association with a coronavirus strain causes damage to our business reputation.”

“Think about it, if someone dies from ‘Omicron’ – your relative or friend, you are unlikely to go to the clinic with the same name.”

This raises questions as to the effects, if any, this has had on Omicron clinics and how the business can protect its trademark from any potential detrimental consequences.

It is important to highlight that Trademarks have become an essential factor for the economic growth of corporations and enhance the distinctiveness and integrity of enterprises; they are also capable of distinguishing in the market; products, services, or commercial or industrial establishments.


Why did WHO name the new variant Omicron?

In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued the Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases to reduce unnecessary adverse effects on ‘nations, economies and people’. This included the formation of unfair barriers to travel, commerce, trade, and animal welfare.

Under this guide, WHO decided to give Covid variants names based on the Greek alphabet to avoid public confusion and discrimination. WHO had already used 12 letters of the Greek alphabet. Nevertheless, it skipped two letters of the alphabet just before Omicron (“Nu” and “Xi”), which has raised speculation as to whether “Xi” was not used in deference to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

While the Omicron variant was named after the Greek alphabet, Padar claims that the name has automatically raised associations between the virus and the Omicron Network of clinics, affecting the company’s image and operations, leading to substantial economic losses.


How does this affect businesses?

This is not the first time that terminology of the pandemic has affected business. Most infamously, the Covid-19 virus was given the name “Coronavirus”, meaning crown in Latin. However, Corona is also the name of the famous Mexican Corona beer – a trademark held by Constellation Brands. Consumers have linked the virus to the beer, creating the potential for negative associations and other effects.

Even though names of the virus and strains were chosen after exhaustive review and consultation and avoiding offences to any ‘cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnics groups’, this hasn’t exempt the WHO from being subject to adverse trademark infringement claims, a timely reminder for all companies to protect their brands.

Harris Gomez Group opened its doors in 1997 as an Australian legal and commercial firm. In 2001, we expanded our practice to the international market with the establishment of our office in Santiago, Chile. This international expansion meant we could provide an essential bridge for Australian companies with interests and activities in Latin America, and in so doing, became the first Australian law firm with an office in Latin America.

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