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Coronavirus Presents 1st Test Of New Rules For Naming A Disease


How do you name a virus? The 2019 novel coronavirus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan will not be novel forever. It needs a permanent name. But as Brett Dahlberg reports from member station WXXI in Rochester, N.Y., that's not an easy process.

BRETT DAHLBERG, BYLINE: The working name is 2019, lowercase n for novel and then the letters C-O-V. That basically translates to new virus, found last year with proteins that kind of look like a crown under an electron microscope. Doesn't really roll off the tongue. Time for something short, catchy and pronounceable.

What is the novel coronavirus going to be called?

BEN NEUMAN: Wish I could tell you. So right now, the committee has a recommendation they would like to make.

DAHLBERG: Ben Neuman is a virologist at Texas A&M in Texarkana, and he's part of the global group that's going to formally name the new coronavirus. It needs a new name to distinguish it from other coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS. Those kind of just got named. There were no guidelines on how to do it. But now there are.

KEIJI FUKUDA: You really are racing very quickly to get a name out there.

DAHLBERG: Dr. Keiji Fukuda helped write the naming guidelines back in 2015. Today, he's at the University of Hong Kong.

FUKUDA: The attempt is to describe a disease using terms that people can understand as well as possible, you know, so not to be too jargony.

DAHLBERG: But you have to be careful. A poorly named pathogen can have unexpected consequences. Back in 2009, the H1N1 flu was also known as the swine flu. The pork industry hated the name, and officials in Egypt ordered every pig to be killed, even though the virus is not spread by pigs. And with MERS, it has the words Middle East right there in the name. Not great for regional branding. Fukuda says until it gets an official name, people will keep connecting this new virus to Wuhan.

FUKUDA: And so there are more stories about anyone who is Chinese or anyone who is Asian becoming the target of fear.

DAHLBERG: He says the people who named SARS got it right. That's a good name for a virus because it doesn't name a person, region, a culture, a food or an animal.

DAVID HEYMANN: There were no rules at that time about how to name it, so we just went ahead and did it.

DAHLBERG: Dr. David Heymann helped name SARS back in 2003. He was in Geneva working for the World Health Organization. He was actually camping with his son's Boy Scout troop when he got a call that a new virus was spreading, internationally. He left his son with the other scouts and headed back to the office.

HEYMANN: The first thing we decided was it would be good to have a name that had the same type of a ring as AIDS, easy to say and short.

DAHLBERG: Heymann says the meeting lasted just 30 minutes. And they really just got lucky and chose well. Members of the current naming group say the formal name is coming soon. It will be the first major test of the usefulness of the WHO's new naming guidelines. For NPR News, I'm Brett Dahlberg in Rochester, N.Y.


Brett is the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism and before landing at WXXI, he was an intern at WNYC and with Ian Urbina of the New York Times. He also produced freelance reporting work focused on health and science in New York City. Brett grew up in Bremerton, Washington, and holds a bachelor’s degree from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.