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WHO officially names the Coronavirus COVID-19, and here's why it matters

The global health agency has learned from its past mistakes and chooses a name based on facts

Photo: @WHO/Twitter
It's taken a while, but the long wait for the deadly coronavirus' official name is over.

On Tuesday 11, the World Health Organisation (WHO) held a press briefing to announce that the disease –which has as of this writing caused a total of 1,113 deaths in mainland China, one in Hong Kong, and another in the Philippines – will now be called COVID-19.

The name stands for the coronavirus disease discovered in 2019. 'CO' stands for 'Corona', 'Vi' stands for Virus and 'D' stands for Disease, while '19' stands for the year it was first identified.

'Under agreed guidelines... we had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease,' WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyesus explained at the press briefing in the Swiss city of Geneva. 'Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatising. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks,' he added.

First discovered on December 31, 2019, the COVID-19 has been given several unofficial names that have gone viral around the world, mostly based on geography. Perhaps to put a curb to this, China health officials had given the virus a temporary name, calling it the 'novel coronavirus pneumonia' or NCP.

The WHO has taken its time giving the deadly disease a name because of its potential to have an impact on a country or a community politically, economically and socially. 'A virus can have more powerful consequences than any terrorist action. If the world doesn't want to wake up and consider this enemy virus as Public Enemy Number 1, I don't think we will learn from our lessons,' Gheybreyesus said.

Examples of other previous names that have caused some misunderstandings in the past are Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which was so named because it was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 but suggests that something in the Middle East causes the disease, and the Swine Flu, which has been renamed to H1N1. The Swine Flu Pandemic of 2009, named based on lab tests that showed similarities to the influenza viruses known to circulate in pigs, was mistakenly assumed by the public, due to its name, to spread through eating pork despite a lack of evidence supporting this. The unvalidated fears caused a decrease in pork sales, which was a disaster for pork farmers everywhere, as reported by NBC News.

Though admittedly not the most memorable name, hopefully the official moniker sticks and achieves its goal, and helps decrease coronavirus-based discrimination abroad.

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