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Why naming the new coronavirus isn’t as easy as it may seem

What’s in a name? It’s a question international health officials and scientists around the world are asking themselves as a coronavirus spills out of China and across borders.

For now, the new strain has been dubbed 2019-nCoV — an oddly clinical title for a virus that’s so far sickened thousands and killed nearly 150.

That’s a problem, according to Trevor Hoppe, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina and author of Punishing Disease.

“There’s no way that term is going to be used in everyday language,” he said. “So what are people going to do? They’re going to talk about it in ways that are potentially inaccurate or sensational or stigmatizing.”

The naming of diseases involves three United Nations agencies — the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health. The organizations, which don’t abide by borders, must meet to assign a name for the long term.

While a WHO spokesperson tells Global News the “process of convening a meeting” is underway, they were unable to give a definitive timeline.

Meanwhile, it’s been nearly six weeks since the virus first emerged from a wet market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. With no formal name, media and the public have labelled it “the coronavirus,” which isn’t entirely accurate. Coronavirus actually refers to a large family of viruses that includes everything from the common cold to more serious infections like SARS. Online, popular searches for the outbreak typically include “China” in the name — “China virus,” “virus in China” and “China coronavirus.”

Naming a disease is no easy task, said Hoppe. The WHO and other agencies have to strike the right balance by following guidelines laid out in 2015.

It’s the delay in decision-making that leaves the risk of the outbreak taking on a name of its own, which could ultimately mislead the public and inadvertently stigmatize a group of people or a place, he said.

“You have to get it out fast and quick because the public wants to talk about this and is talking about it, and they want to talk about it in a way that is easy and understandable,” Hoppe explained.

“Without one, it’s the perfect stew of stigma, fear and panic and an ineffective health communication that will ultimately harm the way we respond to the epidemic.”

Under the WHO’s guidelines, disease names cannot include specific locations, the names of animals or humans, or make reference to sexual or cultural identities. Terms that “incite undue fear,” like fatal or epidemic, cannot be used. It means diseases like Lyme disease — named after a town in Connecticut where it was first identified — and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) would not get the green light these days.

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