The World Health Organization has finally come up with a name for the illness caused by a newly discovered coronavirus that’s infected at least 40,000 people and killed over 1,000 worldwide. Meanwhile, scientists elsewhere have coined a new name for the virus itself.
At a press briefing held Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus debuted the new disease name: COVID-19. COVID stands for Corona Virus Disease, while “19" refers to 2019, when the very first cases in Wuhan, China were publicly reported by the Chinese government in late December.
Bland as the name might seem, its simplicity was a conscious decision by the WHO and its partners, the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Historically, names for new diseases have often come from the place or group of people or animals where it seemed to originate, such as the Spanish flu, Ebola, and Lyme disease. But these names—aside from being factually wrong on occasion (the Spanish flu almost certainly didn’t come from Spain)—can also foster mistrust or stigmatize groups of people.
The temporary name first decided by the WHO—2019-nCoV—undoubtedly made it easier for people to refer to the disease by its unofficial nickname of “Wuhan virus.” And already, there have been reports of xenophobia and discrimination towards people of Chinese descent since the outbreak of COVID-19 began spreading to other countries through travel.
“We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease,” said Tedros at the press conference Tuesday. “Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.”
It’s a lesson only recently put in practice by the WHO. In 2012, when another outbreak of a newly discovered coronavirus emerged in Saudi Arabia, the WHO ultimately designated the disease “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.” Though it’s most often known by its shorthand MERS, the blowback was enough to convince the WHO to establish new naming guidelines in 2015.
While COVID-19 may now be the official name for the disease that’s spread across the globe, that’s not the name of the virus that causes it.
Viruses are classified by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). When a new virus shows up, the ICTV assembles relevant experts to come together and decide where and how the virus fits into the existing family tree of viruses, including its closest relatives.
On Tuesday, a statement from the ICTV’s coronavius study group was published on the preprint server website bioRxiv after the WHO’s decision became public. It detailed the ICTV’s proposal for the virus’ name.
These days, the name of a virus relevant to human health is often close to the name of the disease it causes. But in this case, the scientists chose instead to reflect the new coronavirus’ close genetic ties to the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS: They proposed it be called SARS-CoV-2.
“It will be important to emphasize that WHO named the disease and not the virus,” John Ziebuhr, a German virologist and chair of the ICTV group that studies coronaviruses, told Gizmodo via email. “It is very important to explain this difference to the public. Unfortunately, the disease and the virus that causes the disease are often confused.”