A Coronavirus by Any Other Name

The new coronavirus outbreak is causing fear, social anxiety, and economic disruption worldwide as we struggle to contain its spread and find treatments or vaccines. Amid the medical and social issues comes the confusing matter of nomenclature, i.e. what do we call this virus and the disease it causes? This week the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the disease will be called COVID-19 (CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease, and 19 for the year in which it first appeared). By current WHO rules a disease name shouldn’t refer to people or places since this can be stigmatizing (e.g. Hong Kong flu). Also, colloquial names provide no biological or medical information and may lose context over time. The new name is simple, denotes the viral agent, and can be reused for future new coronavirus outbreaks just by changing the year of origin. However, it is important to note that COVID-19 is only the name of the disease, not the name of the specific coronavirus itself.

It was quickly established that this new epidemic was caused by a novel coronavirus that hadn’t previously been observed in humans. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that infect many species of animals, including humans. There are several known human coronaviruses that each cause colds and mild respiratory illness. These human coronaviruses are endemic and spread around every year, but are usually so mild as to go untreated and undiagnosed. Unfortunately, animal coronaviruses can sometimes jump into humans who come in contact with infected animals, a process called cross-species transmission or zoonotic infection. Since animal viruses haven’t adapted to humans, these animal coronaviruses can be more pathogenic and cause new epidemics like the SARS and MERS coronavirus outbreaks of 2003 and 2012, respectively. This current COVID-19 outbreak is another zoonotic crossover, with bats being the likely primary source as they harbor many coronaviruses with the potential to infect humans. Bats can also spread viruses to other animals which then transmit the virus to humans, such as the pangolin that has been implicated as the source for this new outbreak. The virus causing COVID-19 was initially designated 2019-nCoV (for novel coronavirus) but is now officially named. Based on its genomic sequence, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) designated this new virus as SARS-CoV-2 as it is closely related to the SARS-causing virus. Concerns have already been expressed that having SARS in the name of this new coronavirus will add to public fears about this virus. Fortunately, SARS-CoV-2 is much less pathogenic than the original SARS virus, though this new virus has spread much more widely with over 60,000 cases worldwide compared to less than 9000 total SARS cases. Unfortunately, there are many more animal coronaviruses that could spread to humans, so this type of outbreak may occur periodically in the future. For now, containment and quarantine are our best defenses for these outbreaks, but many scientists are working diligently to find drugs or vaccines that will protect us from any future coronavirus epidemics.

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