Careless virus names stoke sinophobia
The coronavirus that is currently causing severe respiratory illness worldwide has now been named SARS-CoV-2, and the disease is COVID-19. When the virus first emerged last December, it was generally described in medical journals as the ‘2019 novel coronavirus’. Nature, however, used ‘China coronavirus’ and ‘Wuhan coronavirus’. Such interim terminology based on geographic characteristics is objectionable because it can stimulate prejudice and discrimination against Chinese people, fuelled internationally by fear spread through social media.
Although it is difficult and time-consuming to formally name diseases and viruses, it is essential that we methodically select no-harm names for them to make their way into human history. In 2015, the World Health Organization issued guidelines intended to minimize “unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups”. It asks scientists, journalists and health officials to use neutral, generic terms when referring to new human infectious diseases.
Editor’s note: Nature has stopped referring to the 2019 novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) as the Wuhan or China virus, for the reasons cited in the Correspondence. The names that appeared in earlier headlines were used to reflect the situation as it was understood at the time.
Nature 578, 363 (2020)