Keen to avoid stigmatising the city of Wuhan, the World Health Organization is treading carefully on naming the new virus. The UN health agency's official temporary name for the disease, which it has designated as a global health emergency, is "2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease". The date refers to when it was first identified on December 31, 2019 and "nCoV" stands for "novel coronavirus" -- the family of viruses it belongs to.
- The final decision on a name is expected within days and is up to the WHO itself as well as coronavirus experts on the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).
- Meanwhile, China announced on 8 February 2020 that it would temporarily call the disease, which has killed more than 700 people, Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia (NCP).
- Under a set of guidelines issued in 2015, WHO advises against using place names such as Ebola and Zika -- where those diseases were first identified and which are now inevitably linked to them in the public imagination.
- Sylvie Briand, head of the WHO's Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness division, said this week that the use of a place name created "an unnecessary burden".
- More general names such as "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome" or "Spanish flu" are also to be avoided as they can stigmatise entire regions or ethnic groups.
- The WHO also points out that using animal species in the name can create confusion such as H1N1, which was popularly referred to as "swine flu".
- This had a major effect on the pork industry, even though the disease was being spread by people rather than pigs.
- H1N1 was also sometimes called Mexican flu "which was not very nice for Mexican people".
- People's names -- usually the scientists who identified the disease -- are also banned, as are "terms that incite undue fear" such as "unknown" or "fatal".
- Instead, it recommended that any new name should be descriptive and include the causative pathogen if known, as well as being short and easy to pronounce.
What are coronaviruses?
- Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses with some causing less severe common cold to more severe diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
- While the SARS coronavirus is thought to be an animal virus from an as-yet-uncertain animal reservoir, perhaps bats, that spread to other animals (civet cats) and first infected humans in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002, the MERS coronavirus was passed on from dromedary camels to humans in Saudi Arabia in 2012.