You may have noticed that the name coronavirus has evolved quite a bit over the recent months. Initially, it was just known as ‘coronavirus’, that name then evolved to ‘novel coronavirus’, and in recent weeks, WHO had dubbed the virus as ‘2019-nCoV’, ’n’ to denote new or novel, and “CoV” for coronavirus.
So why is it so hard to settle on a name? That is down to a variety of reasons. One of which is the fact that scientists are still learning about the new virus, and as they learn new information about the illness, they change the name accordingly. Coronavirus is an umbrella term for a large group of viruses, including ones that can cause the common cold.
“Once people have a chance to catch their breath, it might be changed,” said Dr Nancy Messonnier of the U.S centre for disease control and prevention.
Some scientists have suggested naming the virus after the area where the outbreak first started, in this case, the Chinese city of Wuhan. The names ‘Wuhan virus’, and ‘Wuhan coronavirus’ has been thrown around, but nothing has been made official yet. Naming a virus after the place in which it was first discovered is a centuries-old tradition. For example, Lyme disease was first detected in Old Lyme, West Nile in the Nile district of Uganda, and of course Ebola in a village near Africa’s Ebola River.
This may sound like a perfect solution, but it can be misleading in certain instances. Take the Spanish flu, for example, the name might suggest that it was first detected in Spain, but recent evidence points to the virus starting in China and quickly spreading to the West with the 140,000 Chinese labourers the French and British governments recruited to perform manual labour to free up troops for wartime duty.
In 2015, the WHO released guidelines regarding the use of geographic locations, animals, or groups of people, stating that “In recent years, several new human infectious diseases have emerged. The use of names such as ‘swine flu’ and ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome’ has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors.”
Another suggestion was to name the virus after the scientist who first discovered it, like Parkinson, Tourette, and Alzheimer. The problem with this is that multiple scientists across the world work on the new aliments at the same time.
According to Dr Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan. “I can see why they want to name it something generic but it has to be something people use otherwise the easier name will take over, and it’s naive to think otherwise.”