Coronavirus? Covid-19? SARS-CoV-2? Why naming matters?

Background image credit: NIAID


Are you still confused with all the names for the coronavirus responsible for the 2019/2020 pandemic?

By now, you would have come across COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, coronavirus, Wuhan virus, and perhaps the worst of all names, the Chinese virus. On 11th February 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced “COVID-19” as the name of the new coronavirus. This was an extremely important moment.

The virus responsible for the outbreak is named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). And the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 was previously known as the 2019 novel coronavirus, now called COVID-19.

Why SARS-CoV-2? In 2003, the world has faced the SARS (name of the disease) outbreak caused by SARS-CoV (name of the virus). SAR-CoV-2 shares genetic similarities with SARS-CoV. Although they are related and belong to the same family, they are still different.

Learn about definition of viruses here.

To understand the naming, we must first know more about coronavirus.

Coronaviridae is the family name of a broad spectrum of animal and human viruses. These viruses are all coronaviruses. Different strains or types of coronavirus have been isolated from pigs, camels, birds, cows, and bats. Symptoms of the infection vary in each species. Most human coronaviruses affect the respiratory system causing a wide range of symptoms including infections, shortness of breath (medical term: dyspnea) and dry cough. These symptoms are similar to that of the common cold and often mild, which is why without proper testing, the disease caused by coronavirus can be misdiagnosed. Out of the seven coronaviruses known to cause disease in humans, three coronavirus strains cause much more severe respiratory infections and can be lethal. They are SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV (cause of Middle East respiratory syndrome, MERS) and the latest SARS-CoV-2.

The name corona is derived from the Ancient Greek word for “crown”. Look at the images below. All the coronaviruses isolated from pigs, mice, and humans have something in common, which is that outer “crown”-like feature.

Naming a new infectious disease is a serious business. 

Throughout history, diseases and viruses were named according to places, animals or a particular group of people. Back in the 1500s, Syphilis was called the French disease in Italy and in France, it was called the Italian disease. In 1918, the flu pandemic was called the Spanish flu, despite not originating from Spain. Similarly, the Ebola virus was named after the Ebola River where the outbreak first started. And chickenpox has nothing to do with chickens.

Naming a disease or virus based on a place or a particular group of people can be very stigmatizing. SARS-CoV-2, the virus strain responsible for COVID-19 was previously called the Wuhan virus or Chinese virus. This caused great discrimination against the people of Wuhan city as well as Chinese people all over the world. Every day, there are more reports on racially motivated attacks against Asian people. It is understandable that people are feeling fear, anger, and despair. However, these emotions do not justify racism. Unnecessary stigmatization can have unimaginable negative effects on economies, people and stabilities in each nation.

WHO has established a best practice guideline in naming new infectious diseases for authorities, scientists and the media. The new names should be “scientifically sound and socially acceptable”. 

The truth is viruses do not discriminate. Regardless of your religious background, financial and/or social status and skin color, our communities need every single one of us to cooperate, be informed and follow official guidelines to combat the outbreak. It is in everyone’s best interest that we show kindness and patience during these uncertain times. Stay strong!

References:
Comparison of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Viruses from Germany and the United States, 2014 – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Porcine-epidemic-diarrhea-virus-particles-seen-by-negative-stain-electron-microscopy-of_fig1_272396404 [accessed 29 Mar 2020]

About the Author

Ameline Lim, Ph.D.
Ameline Lim, Ph.D., is a research scientist and biologist. She received her PhD from the University of New South Wales at Sydney, Australia. She has broad interests in medicine, history of science, and behavioural science. She is particularly interested in science education and the public understanding of scientific research. Her blog 'Science with Amy' celebrates the pleasures of finding things out and general curiosity.

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