US President Donald Trump faced criticism for calling the virus that causes Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” , with accusations that he was helping strengthen bigotry against Asians, especially Chinese. Even when the disease was classified as an outbreak, it was labelled as the Wuhan virus, after the Chinese city became ground zero for the pandemic. So how is the name of a disease and virus decided?
No negatives: WHO, in conjunction with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), has issued guidelines for the naming of a new disease or a pathogen that causes it. Accordingly, there should be no “unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”
The constituents: As such, the name should have a generic descriptive term (like respiratory disease), a specific descriptive term (such as severe in SARS) and the causative pathogen (like, novel coronavirus respiratory syndrome). Care needs to be observed to not equate the pathogen with the disease as it may cause more than one disease. The name should also be short or something that can be easily abbreviated, such as Covid-19 and as far as possible, meet the guidelines of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).
Strict no-no: WHO says the name of a disease or a virus should not include geographic locations, people’s names (such as Chagas disease), animal or food names (eg, swine flu or monkey pox), references to any culture, occupation, industry or occupation and terms that incite fear (such as death, unknown, epidemic or fatal). Ironically — and this is a BIG irony — the WHO approved the use of the terms Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and MERS-Cov, despite a clear mandate not to do so.
Naming of Covid-19: While diseases are named by WHO, viruses are named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) — which explains why viruses are often differently named from diseases. For example, HIV is the virus that causes AIDS while rubeola causes measles. Covid-19 stands for COronaVIrusDisease (Covid) and since it was first diagnosed in 2019, it’s called Covid-19. The virus causing it, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was so named as it’s genetically similar to the one that causes SARS — the virus causing SARS is SARS-Cov.
Interestingly, even Covid-19 may not be the final name for the disease as it’s dependent on confirmation by the ICD at a later stage, says the WHO.