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Naming and Identifying the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)

WHO refers to the new virus as the COVID-19 virus as a formal name to communicate to the public.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a different name for each virus, plainly for clear classification of the virus – the causes, symptoms and right medication. Viruses are named based on their genetic structure to facilitate the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines and medicines.

Virologists and the wider scientific community do this work, so viruses are named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). Human disease preparedness and response is WHO’s role. WHO is the one officially announcing the names in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

In the case of the new virus, WHO officially named the virus as coronavirus disease (COVID-19). As for the virus, who called it the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Following ICTV’s naming, WHO then announced the “COVID-19” name of the new virus. WHO, in consultation and collaboration with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has identified best practices for the naming of the new human diseases, with the aim to minimize the unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, regional, professional or ethnic groups.

Diseases are named to enable discussion on disease prevention, spread, transmissibility, severity and treatment. ICTV announced ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV02) on February 2, 2020. The names were chosen because the virus is genetically related to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak in 2013.

Aside from the announcement of the name of the virus, WHO also said that they have sent an advance team in Beijing to prepare an international mission and to determine some questions. The international team wants to learn more about the characteristics of the virus. The group of international experts, with a range of specializations, will work with Chinese counterparts on increasing understanding of the outbreak to guide global response efforts. 

Human-Animal Interface

Increasing data are emerging regarding the link between the COVID-19 and other similar coronavirus circulating in bats, more specifically of the Rhinolophus bat sub-species. These sub-species are said to have a large number and are widely present in Southern China, across Asia, and the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Rhinolophus bat subspecies featured image
Rhinolophus bat subspecies (researchgate.net)

Recent studies demonstrate that more than 500 coronaviruses have been identified in bats in China. Serological studies conducted in rural populations living close to bats’ natural habitat cave revealed a 2.9% bat-CoV seroprevalence, indicating that humans’ exposure to bat-CoVs might be common.

With all the data and studies conducted, the route of transmission to humans at the start of the outbreak remains unclear. Bats are rare in China’s markets but hunted and sold directly to restaurants for food.

WHO said both Chinese and external expert groups are working in trying to identify the animal source of the new virus. Identifying the animal source of COVID-19 would be a great help to ensure that there will be no further future similar to the outbreak. It will also help in understanding the initial spread of the disease in the Wuhan area.