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What’s in a Name? Why WHO’s Formal Name for the New Coronavirus Disease Matters

4 minute read

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an official name for the new coronavirus disease: COVID-19 — making sure not to reference Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus originated. COVID-19 stands for Corona Virus Disease 19.

“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing,” said Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.” The WHO referenced guidelines set in 2015 that ensure the name does not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, while still being pronounceable and related to the disease.

Public health experts agree with the choice not to name the disease after a geographic region in China.

If the new name had included a reference to Wuhan it would put a “tremendous stigmatization on the people of Wuhan who are the victims” of the disease, Wendy Parmet, a law professor at Northeastern University and public health expert, tells TIME.

“People tend to think of the disease as belonging to, as being a characteristic of some group of people associated with the place name, which can be really stigmatizing,” Parmet says. “To be thought of as a hole of disease is not going to be productive. It encourages the next city not to come forward, not to report a disease if your city is labeled as the disease.”

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Following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, there have been reports of xenophobic incidents and attitudes, particularly towards people of Asian descent.

Experts note though that there is a “long history” of diseases being named in ways that include particular groups of people or places or animals.

Around the 1500s in France, Syphilis was called the Italian disease and in Italy it was called it the French disease. The 1918 influenza pandemic was widely called the Spanish Flu in the U.S., even though it did not originate in Spain. In 2009, the WHO stopped using the term “swine flu” and replaced it with Influenza A (H1N1), following a drop in the pork market. Ebola was named after a river near where the outbreak first originated.

The WHO now notes the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, the Spanish Flu, Swine Flu and the Chagas disease as examples of names that are should be avoided when looking to name new diseases.

Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, says it’s important to be sensitive to different cultures when naming a disease. “If you have a name which is regional and it spreads globally, it’s confusing,” Monto says.

In the case of the new coronavirus, the WHO has specified a name for the disease but not the virus. The virus has been named the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) by the Coronavirus Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, which is responsible for the official classification of viruses. The committee recognized the new coronavirus’ similarities to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic that occurred between 2002-2003.

For the disease, it’s ideal to have a name that’s easy to pronounce like COVID-19, Parmet says: it’s short, easy to say and two syllables. “You want something that’s easy and that people are going to keep using otherwise they’re going to substitute it with more problematic slang,” she says.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com