The World Health Organisation on Tuesday said “Covid-19” would be the new official name for the deadly coronavirus that was first identified in China on 31st December 2019. The UN health agency also said the disease represented a “very grave threat” for the world. However, there was a “realistic chance” of stopping it.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “We now have a name for the disease and it’s Covid-19.”
He further explained that “co” stood for “corona”, “vi” for “virus” and “d” for “disease”.
Tedros said the organisation chose the name to avoid references to a specific geographical location, animal species or group of people. This was in line with international recommendations for naming in order to avoid stigmatisation.
The WHO had earlier given the virus the temporary name of “2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease”. China’s National Health Commission earlier this week also said it was temporarily calling it “novel coronavirus pneumonia” or NCP.
Under a set of guidelines issued in 2015, WHO advises against using place names such as Ebola and Zika. Those diseases were first identified at those areas and are now inevitably linked to them in the public mind. It also notes that using animal species in the name can create confusion. For instance, in 2009, H1N1 was popularly referred to as “swine flu”.
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Furthermore, it now avoids more general names such as “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” or “Spanish flu” as they can stigmatise entire regions or ethnic groups. People’s names — usually the scientists who identified the disease — are also banned. Finally, the WHO is against the use of “terms that incite undue fear” such as “unknown” or “fatal”.
Speaking on the first day of an international scientific conference in Geneva that will look at possible vaccine options to combat the virus, Tedros also said he saw a “realistic chance” of stopping the outbreak.
“We are not defenceless. We have to use the current window of opportunity to hit hard and stand in unison to fight this virus in every corner. If we don’t we could have far more cases and far higher costs on our hands.”
‘More powerful’ than a terrorist attack
The virus has killed more than 1,000 people, infected over 42,000 and reached some 25 countries. This led to the WHO declaring a global health emergency.
Participants will also discuss the source of the virus, which may have its origin from bats and reached humans via other “intermediary” species such as snakes or pangolins.
WHO sent an advance team to China this week for an international mission to examine the epidemic. It remains unclear, however, whether the team can visit Wuhan, a city in central China which has been under lockdown after the outbreak was registered in a food and live animal market in the city.
Roadmap for research
No specific treatment or vaccine against the virus exists. The WHO repeatedly urges countries to share data in order to further research into the disease. Tedros also hopes the scientists can agree on a roadmap “around which researchers and donors will align”.
Several teams of experts in Australia, Britain, China, France, Germany and the United States are racing to develop a vaccine — a process that normally takes years.
Efforts to come up with a Covid-19 vaccine are being led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The body, established in 2017, helped to finance costly biotechnology research in the wake of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people.
Ultimately, however, scientists may end up in the same situation they were during the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) — which died out before they could fully develop a vaccine. A close cousin of COVID-19, SARS spread around the world and killed nearly 800.
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