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Covid-19 – Deadly coronavirus disease gets official name

Published:  |  Modified:

  • UPDATED 5.10AM | Clarified the distinction between the name of the virus and the disease it causes, and added ICTV announcement of virus' name.

CORONAVIRUS | The coronavirus disease that has sickened more than 43,000 people and killed over 1,000 worldwide has been officially named Covid-19, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced.

The name is short of “Coronavirus Disease 19”. The new name marks the first time WHO guidelines for naming human diseases was put to use since it was adopted in 2015.

“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatising.

“It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks,” WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (below) announced at a daily press briefing in Geneva today.

SARS-CoV-2 causes Covid-19

In a related development, the committee responsible for the classification and naming of viruses formally named the virus that causes Covid-19.

In a preprint paper, International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) said the virus responsible would be named SARS-CoV-2, or Sars Coronavirus 2.

The paper's authors said this is in recognition of the fact that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is closely related to the virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) that killed nearly 800 people during a 2002-2003 outbreak.

Guidelines meant to avoid stigma

According to WHO's 2015 guidelines, disease names should be - among others - short, easy to pronounce and make reference to its causal pathogen if it is known.

It specifically says that terms such as geographic references, people’s names, names of animals or foods, and cultural or occupational references should be avoided.

Examples of disease names not to be emulated include: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers), swine flu, and bird flu, the document says.

The guidelines were made after WHO criticised a 2015 epidemic that that was given the name Mers, saying that it unnecessarily provoked stigmatisation against people of Middle Eastern origin.

“Diseases are often given common names by people outside of the scientific community.

“Once disease names are established in common usage through the Internet and social media, they are difficult to change, even if an inappropriate name is being used.

“Therefore, it is important that whoever first reports on a newly identified human disease uses an appropriate name that is scientifically sound and socially acceptable,” it said at the time.

Unintended consequences

A BBC report on the naming of new diseases published last week also noted that after the H1N1 virus outbreak in 2009 was dubbed the “swine flu”, Egypt slaughtered all its pigs in response.

This was despite the fact that the virus was being spread by people, not pigs.

As for Covid-19, China first reported pneumonia cases of unknown causes to the WHO on Dec 31, 2019.

The virus that had caused the outbreak was only identified later on Jan 7, and was subsequently given the provisional name 2019-nCoV, or the 2019 novel coronavirus.

The term 'coronavirus' refers to a class of viruses that have surface projections that give it a crown-like appearance under the microscope. 'Corona' means 'crown' or 'halo' in Latin.

Members of the class include viruses that cause Sars, Mers, and some types of the common cold.

Despite the temporary name, the virus was often referred to as the “Wuhan coronavirus” or “China virus” in informal discussions, including in the media.

Cases of assault and abuse linked to the Covid-19 outbreak have been reported in several countries around the world, targeting people of Asian origin.

Asia News Network previously reported a Feb 2 incident at a New York train station where a woman wearing a face mask was called a "diseased b*tch" before being struck in the head.

On Feb 4, the Leicester Mercury in the UK reported that two teenagers were verbally abused and pelted with eggs. Their assailants reportedly blamed one of the duo for spreading disease in the UK.

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