By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 12/02/2020

As of today, the novel coronavirus spreading in China is called COVID-19. Why does it matter?

Around the office, we’ve had several conversations over the past few weeks about how 2019-nCoV needed its own name.

First, it was getting annoying calling it by the above designation, and ‘novel coronavirus’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue either. And it was a definite no-no to call it anything that referenced the city it first emerged because such a name can be stigmatising and potentially dangerous.

It’s not often we get a new disease with this much international attention – let’s hope there isn’t another one for many years – so I thought it would be interesting to discuss why its name was approached with caution.

When names go wrong

There’s often been a trend to naming a disease after a location or animal species it’s thought to be linked to, but this can be incredibly stigmatising among the general public. For instance, H1N1 became known as ‘swine flu’ because it resembled a virus known in pigs – but it did not transmit from pigs to humans. You can see how this understandable confusion led to significant negative effects on the pork industry for no good reasons.

On the other hand, naming something after a location can create cultural stigma. For instance, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) had a far more stigmatising effect than Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), despite also being a coronavirus. Giving something a name that implies there is something about that location that is linked to the disease is not only wrong, it’s unfair.

In 2015, on the basis of these historic diseases, the World Health Organization – in collaboration with World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – published best practice guidelines for naming new human infectious diseases. I might be wrong, but I suspect COVID-19 is the first major outbreak that has tested the new system.

These guidelines give an array of terms that are acceptable for new names, including those describing symptoms (respiratory, haemorrhagic, encephalitis), pathogen names (coronavirus, influenza virus, salmonella), and other descriptors (severe, maternal, contagious, coastal).

What isn’t allowed?

  • Geographic locations: this would rule out Lyme disease (named after a place in Connecticut), Spanish flu, MERS, or Rift Valley Fever.
  • People’s names: you might be familiar with Creuztvelt-Jakob disease, which is linked to Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (‘Mad Cow Disease’ – the cows probably aren’t so hot on that name either).
  • Animal species or food: this is where we come back to swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox.
  • Occupation, industry or other cultural references: legionnaire’s disease (first identified following an outbreak at the American Legion convention), miner’s lung…

This COVID-19 outbreak is tragic: the death toll is already over 1,000. But I do think we can be interested in what we learn from this outbreak, and – for me, at least – seeing this new naming convention in action has been revealing. For the first few weeks of the outbreak, I felt very uncomfortable seeing a region associated with this deadly disease, so I hope that media and the public will take this new name on board to avoid some of the pitfalls previous disease names have highlighted.

Featured image: John Brighenti, Flickr CC.