Language Corner

How to name a coronavirus

February 24, 2020

As regular readers of this column know, we usually object to labels, because their meanings are often in the eye of the beholder rather than universal. 

Exceptions should be made, though. The current epidemic sweeping China and threatening the world should be called by its label.

Most news reports call it “the coronavirus,” “a coronavirus,” “new coronavirus,” or “novel coronavirus.” To be accurate, though, it must be “a coronavirus,” “a new coronavirus,” or “a novel coronavirus.” That’s because this coronavirus is separate from other coronaviruses that have caused their own epidemics or pandemics. Each gets a name, and each was new (or novel) at some point.

One of them, SARS, appeared in November 2002, in Guangdong province in southern China. (SARS stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Site says that 8,098 people were infected, and 774 died before it was declared under control in July 2003. It spread to 24 countries.

Another “coronavirus” is MERS, which stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The World Health Organization says 2,494 cases were reported, with 858 deaths, in 27 countries.

The current “coronavirus” first appeared in Wuhan, China, probably transmitted to a human by an animal, and has spread to many countries, including the United States, causing quarantines, panic, a run on facemasks, and discrimination against Chinese people.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

After several weeks without a name of its own, the current coronavirus finally got one: The virus is SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes is called COVID-19, after coronavirus and its year of discovery. “COVID-19” does not run as easily off the tongue as SARS or MERS but there is a logic to its name.

As the director general of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said: “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. Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.” As Shakespeare did not say: what’s in a name can be important.

In getting a name without a geographic or animal identification, COVID-19 can avoid some of the problems previous viruses have. This year, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has named several varieties of flu viruses, including an A/Singapore/INFIMH-16-0019/2016 A(H3N2)-like virus, an A/Kansas/14/2017 (H3N2)-like virus, a B/Victoria virus, and a B/Yamagata virus. They get shortened, to Singapore, Kansas, Victoria, and Yamagata, to make them easier to say and understand. That stigmatizes the people in Singapore, Kansas, Victoria, and Yamagata, who did not cause those flus. And of course, there’s “swine flu,” “Asian flu,” “bird flu” and others. Associating a disease with a place or an animal always risks retaliation, and overreaction. It will be difficult enough to distance COVID-19 from its Chinese source, especially as people shun Chinatowns around the U.S. from an unfounded fear of COVID-19.

COVID-19 has already surpassed the death tolls of SARS and MERS, over 2,000 people as this is written, with little signs of abating. Still, that pales in comparison with the CDC estimates of 26 million illnesses from flu, resulting in 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths from flu in the United States alone.

And even the WHO director-general seemed frustrated that so much attention was being paid to COVID-19. He began his Feb.11 briefing on the coronavirus with a reminder: “Although the world is now focused on coronavirus, we cannot and must not forget Ebola,” which has surged in Africa and which has a much higher fatality rate than COVID-19. 

So why is so much attention being paid to COVID-19? First, because it’s new, and spreading. But as Max Fisher wrote in the New York Times, COVID-19 “hits nearly every cognitive trigger we have.” Its novelty and the uncertainty around it override the recognition that other diseases, including flu, are far more endemic and dangerous. He likens the reaction to that after a plane crash, when people shun flying even though a crash is an anomaly and flying is overwhelmingly safe.

And social media spreads the rumors, fake cures, and other untruths that we won’t link to, but include words like “genocide” and “Zionist conspiracy.”

Journalists have the responsibility to put things in context. Cover COVID-19 and its effects, be they economic, physical, or social. But acknowledge its place in the pantheon of disease. Reporting as if it were the end of the world is an epidemic of a different kind.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.