Covid-19: why has the World Health Organisation renamed the coronavirus disease, and what does it mean?

Medical personnel wearing protective suits stay near a block's entrance on the grounds of a residential estate in Hong Kong (Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)
Medical personnel wearing protective suits stay near a block's entrance on the grounds of a residential estate in Hong Kong (Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)
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The first cases of Coronavirus were logged as far back as the end of last year on 31 December 2019 in China.

It has since been confirmed in other parts of the world, and now affects 28 countries and territories.

(Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)

(Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)

At the time of writing, over 45,000 cases have been reported worldwide (there have been eight in the UK), and more than 1,100 have died as a result of the virus.

Nearly three months on from the virus' first emergence, the World Health Organisation have announced that the official name for the disease caused by the new coronavirus is "Covid-19".

Here's why the name's changed:

Why is the coronavirus now called Covid-19?

"Coronavirus" is actually the name of a large family of viruses, not the virus itself.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain that coronaviruses usually cause “mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses”, like the common cold.

So technically, to say somebody has a coronavirus could mean anything from them suffering with the common cold to the new deadly strain of the disease.

You or I could have come down with a coronavirus at some point in our lives, and not even paid notice to it; most people get infected with the viruses at some point, although they usually only last for a short period of time.
This particular strain originated in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, the largest city in central China, and is in the same family as SARS and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).

To distinguish it from other coronaviruses, it needed its own name.

Step in Covid-19, taken from the words "corona", "virus" and "disease", with the "19" representing the year that it emerged.

Apart from being able to report on and discuss the disease accurately, the new name also aims to avoid prejudice against certain locations and groups of people.

"We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease," the WHO chief said.

"Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatising. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks."

"Coronavirus" didn't really pinpoint any particular location or group of people, but its association with Wuhan and China as a whole has led to racism and suspicion against Chinese citizens.

The new name will hopefully allow people to disassociate the disease from where it originated.

Racist attitudes are inextricably tied to the epidemic, just as they were when SARS spread in 2013, and ebola started claiming lives a year later.

What is SARS-CoV-2?

As we get even further into technicalities, "Covid-19" is actually the name of the disease caused by this particular strain of coronavirus, not the virus itself.

For that, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses has designated the virus itself with the even more memorable title of "SARS-CoV-2".