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What does COVID-19 stand for anyway?

Nathan Fletcher at a lectern.
San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher announces the creation a COVID-19 community response fund.
(Charles Clark / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

By now, you probably know the disease at the center of the global pandemic is called COVID-19. But perhaps you don’t know why.

The answer is that COVID-19 a shorthand for “coronavirus disease 2019.”

The World Health Organization made it official back in February, with the name written in all capital letters.

At the same time, the WHO announced an official name for the novel coronavirus that causes the disease: SARS-CoV-2. It reflects the fact that the new virus is a genetic relative of SARS-CoV, the virus responsible for the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. That disease is better known by the acronym SARS.

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SARS and SARS-CoV match, but COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 don’t. That may strike you as odd, but there’s plenty of precedent for mismatched names. For instance, the human immunodeficiency virus, a.k.a. HIV, is what causes the disease known as acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

It may seem obvious that a disease should have a name, but the WHO spelled out the reason anyway: “Diseases are named to enable discussion on disease prevention, spread, transmissibility, severity and treatment.”

The global health agency worked with the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to come up with advice for picking a name. Among their suggestions:

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• Names should be “short” and “easy to pronounce.”

• They can combine generic descriptive terms (such as “respiratory disease”) with more specific ones (such as “severe” or “progressive”).

• Words that are “plain” are better than words that are “highly technical.”

• If the pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be included in the disease name.

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There’s also advice on words that should not be part of a disease name, including:

• Words that “incite undue fear” (among them “death” and “fatal”)

• Countries or geographical locations

• Animals or food items

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• References to specific jobs or industries

• The name of a specific person

Clearly, this advice is not always followed. Consider Spanish flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (a.k.a. MERS), bird flu, legionnaires’ disease and Chagas disease.

The final word on a new name rests with the keepers of the International Classification of Diseases, a comprehensive catalog of health disorders that is maintained by the WHO.


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