What’s in a (virus) name?

posted in: about words, HD Words | 0

How COVID-19 got its name, and why viruses aren’t named after places any more

Firstly, I’d like to introduce a new guest blogger – my sister Stephanie McIntosh. She has a first class degree in English (which I don’t), and in her studies focused on Anglo-Saxon and medieval English, as well as 20th-century literature (which I know not a lot about). She has also got 9 years’ experience as a teacher of the English language to overseas students, (again, which I don’t). Consequently, she has plentiful experience looking at the oddities of the English language, and its roots, which I thought would bring an interesting perspective to the blogs from HD Words. 

Hence, her first blog is around the uses of words, in particular, the naming of diseases.

Naming new diseases

When reports of a new virus first emerged from Wuhan, China in December 2019, the media tended to describe it with some reference to its city or country of origin. It seems to be an instinctive choice to name an illness after the place it was first observed, if not the people who first caught it or the scientist who discovered it. As examples, see West Nile virus, Legionnaires’ disease and Parkinson’s disease, respectively.

The seal of the American Legion, the original Legionnaires who got the eponymous disease.

However, there is a long history of negative consequences of these kinds of names. For example, Hendra virus (a disease of bats and horses that occasionally crosses over to humans) was discovered in the 1990s in the suburb of Hendra in Brisbane, Australia. Local residents blame the shared name for falling property prices. Swine flu (H1N1), named because it looked similar to a disease of pigs, slashed $1billion from the value of the US pork industry, even though pigs did not actually transmit the virus to humans.

Then there was the Spanish flu of 1918-19, whose ultimate death toll lay between 50 and 100 million, out of a world population of 1.8 billion. It earned its name because Spanish newspapers were the first to openly discuss the virus at a time when other affected countries were censoring their media due to World War 1. Spanish flu definitely did not start in Spain; it may in fact have originated in Kansas. For a century since, Spain has protested the inaccurate name of the virus, considering it a slur on their country.

New guidelines

Considering all this, in 2015 the WHO (World Health Organization) issued guidelines for how new diseases should be named. In future, names of people, places, occupations and food are to be avoided, as well as scary language like ‘fatal’, ‘unknown’ and so on. So the rare condition called Jumping Frenchmen of Maine (yes, really) would not receive such a wacky name if discovered today.

On a much more serious note, in the early 1980s, the name Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) was briefly used before scientists settled on the more neutral Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The name GRID contributed to the widely held but inaccurate belief that the disease only affected gay men, and fuelled stigma against an already marginalised group.

Under the new WHO guidelines, scientists are directed to pick more neutral names for diseases, by describing the symptoms, the epidemiological characteristics (for example ‘seasonal’), and the identifying characteristics of the pathogen.

These guidelines are what give us the name SARS CoV2 for the virus behind the current outbreak:

  • SARS stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – describing the symptoms of the disease.
  • CoV stands for coronavirus – the family of viruses to which the pathogen causing the disease belongs.
  • The 2 is because this virus is so similar to SARS CoV, which caused the SARS outbreak in 2002-4.

The name COVID-19 belongs to the disease caused by SARS CoV2, where CO stands for corona, VI for virus, D for disease, and 19 for the year 2019 when the virus emerged. By the way, the coronavirus family takes its name from tiny spikes on the surface of the virus, which look a little like a crown, or the corona of the sun.  Of seven known coronaviruses that affect humans, 4 are common and comparatively mild. The other 3 are SARS, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS CoV2.

Whether or not a location-based name for an illness is accurate, it can encourage prejudice, as seen recently in some shocking incidents of racially motivated violence against Chinese people. Using a location-based name for SARS CoV2 points the finger of blame, which isn’t necessary when we’re talking about a truly global problem that could have originated anywhere. The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate in who it infects, so stay safe, stay home if possible, and use your words wisely!

Blog by Steph McIntosh for HD Words

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