The disease caused by the new coronavirus that’s sickened more than 42,000 people in China now has an official name: COVID-19. It stands for the coronavirus disease that was discovered in 2019.
The World Health Organization announced the name Tuesday, saying it was careful to find a name without stigma.
“We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, or an individual or group of people,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a call with reporters.
It’s also easy to pronounce, he added.
Naming an illness is not as easy or as straightforward as it might appear. The original name was nCoV-2019, which stood for novel coronavirus, discovered in 2019. It’s like naming a child “son born in 2019.”
There are many different kinds of coronaviruses. Some cause mild illness, such as the common cold. Others cause deadly respiratory diseases, as has been illustrated by COVID-19. By Tuesday afternoon, COVID-19 had claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, nearly all of them in China.
The name of a deadly disease has the potential to have an impact on a country or a community politically, economically and socially.
MERS, for example, stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. It was named so because the deadly virus was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. But the name itself appears to suggest there’s something about the Middle East in general that can cause disease, which is untrue.
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Likewise with the swine flu pandemic of 2009, now renamed H1N1 in reference to the particular strain of influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said lab tests originally showed the virus was similar to influenza viruses known to circulate in pigs.
But even though there was no evidence the flu was spread through eating pork, the name itself was a disaster for pork farmers, who suffered from a decline in sales over unnecessary fears.
WHO has since developed guidelines for naming emerging diseases. The monikers should never include proper names of the people who first identified the pathogens, animals associated with the illness, or places where they were discovered.
Other examples of how not to name an illness, according to WHO, include the Spanish flu, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and monkey pox.