World Health Organization names new coronavirus COVID-19

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Friday, February 14, 2020

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the official name of the coronavirus-induced disease first recognized about two months ago in Wuhan, China: "COVID-19" is to replace the WHO's temporary designation "2019-nCoV."

"COVID-19" is the name of the disease rather than the virus. The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses named the virus that causes it "severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2" (SARS-CoV-2).

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in 2018.
Image: MONUSCU Photos.

Reportedly, "COVI" represents the coronavirus, "D" is for "disease," and "19" for the year it was first detected, 2019.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the name had to be easy to say and, to prevent stigma, it must not cite any specific person, animal, profession or place, per WHO guidelines established in 2015.

The guidelines cite the 2009 H1N1 outbreak as an example of what not to do. That year's H1N1 was commonly called "swine flu." The government of Egypt ordered the killing of over 300,000 pigs. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization's chief veterinary officer, it was completely unnecessary. The guidelines also list Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, from 2013, as an undesirable name.

In an interview with Time magazine, Northwestern University public health expert Wendy Parmet said naming the virus after Wuhan would place "tremendous stigmatization on the people of Wuhan who are the victims[.]" She went on to say, "People tend to think of the disease as belonging to, as being a characteristic of some group of people associated with the place name, which can be really stigmatizing [...] To be thought of as a hole of disease is not going to be productive. It encourages the next city not to come forward, not to report a disease if your city is labeled as the disease. [...] You want something that's easy and that people are going to keep using otherwise they're going to substitute it with more problematic slang[.]"

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security medical anthropologist Monica Schoch-Spana told the press in a separate interview, "People with a different national, ethnic or religious background have historically been accused of spreading germs regardless of what the science may say[.]" As of Tuesday there had been reports of people avoiding or harassing Chinese and perceived-to-be Chinese individuals in several countries over the current outbreak, including Italy, the United States, Thailand, and Canada.

SARS-CoV-2 has already killed more than 1,000 people and infected tens of thousands.