CO stands for corona, VI for virus, D for disease, and 19 for 2019, the year the first cases were seen, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference in Geneva.
The virus, which causes flu-like symptoms, has infected more than 43,100 people in over two dozen countries.
“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing,” Tedros said. “It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreak.”
For the last six weeks, the virus was referred to as 2019-nCoV. The international health agency said the name was picked with careful consideration avoiding stigma, especially to China or the city of Wuhan, where the illness was first identified.
Although origin sites have been used in the past to identify new viruses, such a namesake is now seen as denigrating.
“We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, or an individual or group of people,” Dr Tedros said.
A name had been expected since scientists at the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) last week announced they had decided on one.
The ICTV team had submitted the name for approval by global authorities last week – it has not been confirmed that their name is the one just announced.
WHO has an international set of rules which scientists must follow when proposing new names for a virus. They must not contain references to certain places in the world, communities, human names or animals because they may cause a backlash.
Initially after viruses were discovered there was no system for classifying viruses. Consequently, viruses were named haphazardly. Most of the vertebrate viruses have been named according to:
the associated diseases (poliovirus, rabies)
the type of disease caused (murine leukemia virus),
the sites in the body affected or from which the virus was first isolated (rhinovirus, adenovirus)
the places from where they were first isolated (Sendai virus, Coxsackievirus)
the scientists who discovered them (Epstein-Barr virus), or
due to common cultural perceptions e.g. influenza ‘influence’ of bad air or dengue ‘evil spirit’
Once names are established in common usage, especially through the internet and social media, they are difficult to change, WHO officials said. For example, the “swine flu” and “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” had unintended negative impacts by stigmatising certain communities or economic sectors, they said.
Other examples include Spanish Flu, Lyme disease, Japanese encephalitis, swine flu, bird flu, and monkey pox. Other words to avoid are scary ones such as ‘unknown’, ‘death’, ‘fatal’ and ‘epidemic’.
The actual classification of viruses began in the 1960’s when new viruses were being discovered and studied by electron microscopy. When the structure was clarified the need for a new system of classification was felt, leading to the creation of the ICTV. But naming deadly new viruses is fraught with sensitivity, and the signs are this matter has yet to settle.
Almost 33 years ago, when the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), was discovered, it was named “GRID,” or “gay-related immune deficiency,” helping to spread the slur “the gay plague.” It was not until it became clear the sexually transmitted virus was also infecting heterosexuals and haemophiliacs, that GRID was replaced with the more accurate HIV.
More recently, the scientific “H1N1” was the name that stuck for the pandemic flu strain that swept the world in 2009/2010 after earlier suggestions proved too sensitive. An Israeli health minister objected to “swine flu” on religious grounds and “Mexican flu” caused offense to a nation.
When scientists called a “superbug” enzyme that makes bacteria resistant to almost all known antibiotics “New Delhi metallo beta lactamase,” or NDM-1, the Indian health ministry called it “malicious propaganda” to put India in the name.
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