The disease that has killed more than 1,000 people in China, stopped flights and disrupted trade now has a name — “COVID-19,” a moniker that combines “coronavirus,” “disease” and the year it was discovered while averting the ignominy of tying the disease to an entire place or people, like the Spanish flu a century ago.
It also sets the table for naming future coronaviruses — just add the year at the end.
What to call the new illness has been overshadowed by the human toll of the outbreak. Millions are on lockdown in China, where more than 42,000 people have been infected, and two dozen other countries have reported the illness, which can cause respiratory distress and organ failure.
Still, the World Health Organization said a name is important. A common name helps scientists compare notes and data and heads off public confusion in a climate in which online misinformation is rampant.
“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing,” WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus told reporters. “It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus.”
Many news outlets have been referring to the illness as the “new virus from China” or “Wuhan virus,” after the Chinese city in Hubei Province where the outbreak began in December.
DOCUMENT: COVID-19 spread in China
Peter Hotez, a professor at *Baylor College of Medicine who studies diseases, said COVID-19 is not a “descriptive or memorable” name.
“Rather than thinking of naming an infectious agent as stigmatizing, potentially there’s an upside as well,” he said. “Everyone would know what virus one is referring to, but also it’s a poignant reminder of how emerging and neglected infections not only affect health but can devastate economies and global security.”
He said sticking with the “Wuhan virus” would be “a fitting tribute to the heroism of the people of Wuhan, who confronted this epidemic with bravery and selflessness, including healthcare workers who lost their lives.”
But WHO went out of its way to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal or an individual or group of people. The name also had to be pronounceable and related to the actual disease.
Those guidelines follow guidance WHO issued in 2015 to minimize the “unnecessary negative impact” of diseases named on things such as travel, tourism or animal welfare.
The guidance dispensed with names tied to specific groups such as “legionnaires’ disease,” as a type of severe pneumonia became known after a 1976 outbreak among American Legion delegates in Philadelphia.
It also said to steer away from place IDs such as Lyme disease — named for a Connecticut town — and focus on short, descriptive terms about the typical age of patients, its severity or seasonality in place of ethnicities or nationalities.
For a century Spain has been saddled with the “Spanish flu” tag given to the 1918 outbreak of H1N1 that infected roughly a quarter of the world’s population and killed tens of millions of people.
The strain wasn’t from Spain, however. The name was the quirky result of wartime censors permitting more extensive coverage of the illness in neutral Spain during World War I.
WHO named the latest global health scare as it starts a two-day research summit in Geneva, Switzerland, to study the virus, guide the response and develop therapies and vaccines.
Mr. Ghebreyesus said the world must treat COVID-19 as “public enemy No. 1” and take advantage of the window it has to stamp it out.
“With 99% of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world,” Mr. Ghebreyesus told researchers.
There have been 42,708 confirmed cases in mainland China and 1,017 deaths from the novel coronavirus.
Outside of China, 393 cases have been confirmed in 24 countries. A man died in the Philippines after traveling there from Wuhan.
U.S. officials said Tuesday they have recorded a 13th case. The infection was detected in a person who is under quarantine after returning from Wuhan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
However, officials said 195 people who took the first evacuation flight out of Wuhan on Jan. 29 are free of the virus and can go home after 14 days of quarantine at March Air Reserve Base in California.
Jamie Fouss, the U.S. consul general in Wuhan, became emotional as he recounted the camaraderie that concluded with the evacuees lifting their masks and getting a clean bill of health.
“We kept ourselves busy. One of our staff did a Zumba class. We had trivia games. We had a master artist who gave art classes. The kids had a school,” he told reporters at Riverside University Health System. “We tried to do as normal of a life as we could. It was actually quite a good experience, and we hope to have a reunion soon.”
* (Correction: An updated version corrected the name of the college of medicine.)