Jenny Hong | Published 05 April 2020
We’ve all heard them: “coronavirus,” “novel coronavirus,” “COVID-19,” “SARS-CoV-2”... Why does this elusive and deadly disease have so many names, and do they all mean the same thing? Here’s a quick look at what each of these terms mean and how the evolution of these names reflects our growing understanding of the virus.
Wuhan coronavirus / Wuhan virus / China virus
Used during the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak because the SARS-CoV-2 strain was first discovered in Wuhan, China, these names have now largely fallen out of usage because of their inaccuracy and racist connotations. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has stated that it is “absolutely wrong and inappropriate” to use such labels for the disease because they perpetuate racist associations with the virus.
The use of inaccurate or inappropriate disease names, such as “swine flu,” “Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome,” or, in the instance of this year’s outbreak, “Wuhan virus,” can have severe unintentional negative economic and social impacts. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO), World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), have strongly urged scientists, national authorities, and media outlets to use best practices when referring to diseases.
2019-nCoV or novel coronavirus
Coronavirus is the name of a group of viruses to which the virus responsible for the current pandemic belongs. The name originated from the appearance of crown-like protein spikes on the surface of the virus when viewed through an electron microscope.
Before scientists were able to identify the strain of virus and give it an official name, the virus was temporarily dubbed novel coronavirus to distinguish it from other strains of coronavirus. The abbreviation 2019-nCoV also specifies the year in which it was discovered.
COVID-19 or coronavirus disease
This is the official name of the disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2
This is the official name of the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). This name indicates that the virus is genetically related to the virus that causes SARS, a related but distinct infectious respiratory disease.
Even though SARS-CoV-2 is the official name of the virus, the WHO often uses the term COVID-19 virus in public health communications in order to avoid confusion with SARS.
Why do the virus and disease have different names?
Diseases and their corresponding viruses often have different names. For example, the virus HIV causes AIDS.
Different processes go into naming viruses and diseases. While viruses are named based on their genetic structure and relatedness to other previously-identified viruses, diseases are named with characteristics such as transmissibility, severity, prevention, and treatment in mind. Viruses are named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), and diseases are named by the WHO. While ICTV and WHO are in communication about their nomenclatures, the resulting names are often different.