The World Health Organization on Tuesday announced that “COVID-19” will be the official name of the deadly virus from China, saying the disease represented a “very grave threat” for the world but there was a “realistic chance” of stopping it.
“We now have a name for the disease and it’s COVID-19,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva.
Tedros said that “co” stands for “corona”, “vi” for “virus” and “d” for “disease”, while “19” was for the year, as the outbreak was first identified on Dec. 31, 2019.
Tedros said the name had been chosen to avoid references to a specific geographical location, animal species or group of people in line with international recommendations for naming aimed at preventing stigmatization.
WHO had earlier given the virus the temporary name of “2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease” and China’s National Health Commission this week said it was temporarily calling it “novel coronavirus pneumonia” or NCP.
Under a set of guidelines issued in 2015, WHO advises against using place names such as Ebola and Zika—where those diseases were first identified and which are now inevitably linked to them in the public mind. More general names such as “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” or “Spanish flu” are also now avoided as they can stigmatize entire regions or ethnic groups.
WHO also notes that using animal species in the name can create confusion, such as in 2009 when H1N1 was popularly referred to as “swine flu.”
This had a major impact on the pork industry even though the disease was being spread by people rather than pigs.
People’s names—usually the scientists who identified the disease—are also banned, as are “terms that incite undue fear” such as “unknown” or “fatal,” the WHO said.
The virus has killed more than 1,000 people, infected over 42,000 and reached some 25 countries, with the WHO declaring a global health emergency.
Addressing scientists at the first international conference on combating the virus earlier on Tuesday, Tedros warned that the virus was a “very grave threat.”
“Viruses can have more powerful consequences than any terrorist action,” he told reporters later.
About 400 scientists were taking part in the two-day international meeting in Geneva called to review how the virus is transmitted and possible vaccines against it.
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“We are not defenseless,” Tedros said, adding: “If we invest now... we have a realistic chance of stopping this outbreak.”
Participants will also discuss the source of the virus, which is thought to have originated in bats and reached humans via other “intermediary” species such as snakes or pangolins.
WHO sent an advance team to China this week for an international mission to examine the epidemic.
It was unclear, however, whether the team would be able to visit Wuhan, a city in central China which has been under lockdown after the outbreak was registered in a food and live animal market in the city.
No specific treatment or vaccine against the virus exists, and WHO has repeatedly urged countries to share data in order to further research into the disease.
“That is especially true in relation to sharing of samples and sequences. To defeat this outbreak, we need open and equitable sharing, according to the principles of fairness and equity,” Tedros told the scientific conference.
He said he hoped the scientists could agree a roadmap “around which researchers and donors will align.”
Several teams of experts in Australia, Britain, China, France, Germany, and the United States are racing to develop a vaccine—a process that normally takes years.
Efforts to come up with a vaccine are being led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a body established in 2017 to finance costly biotechnology research in the wake of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people.
Ultimately, however, scientists may end up in the same situation they were during the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)—which died out before a vaccine could be fully developed.
A close cousin of COVID-19, SARS spread around the world and killed nearly 800.
The death toll from the COVID-19 climbed past 1,100 on Wednesday but the number of new cases fell for a second straight day.
As Beijing scrambles to contain the virus, the number of people infected on a cruise ship off Japan’s coast rose to 174—the biggest cluster outside the Chinese mainland.
Another 97 people died in China, raising the national toll to 1,113, while more than 44,600 people have now been infected by the newly named COVID-19.
Chinese authorities have locked down tens of millions of people in central Hubei province, the epicenter of the crisis, and restricted movements in several other cities in other parts of the country in an unprecedented effort to contain the virus.
Several countries have banned arrivals from China, while major airlines have halted flights to and from the country, as hundreds of people have now been infected in some two-dozen countries.
Most of the deaths have been in Hubei and its capital, Wuhan.
But in a positive development, the number of new cases has fallen in Hubei for two straight days.
Outside the province, the number of new patients has declined for the past week.
“In general, the number of new cases is now slowly decreasing,” Zhong Nanshan, a renowned scientist at China’s National Health Commission, said in a video conference with medical staff in Wuhan.
“When does the turning point occur? I can’t say. But I think it’s at its peak in mid- to late-February,” he said.
Zhong, however, had previously predicted in late January that the epidemic would peak by the first week of this month.
The biggest cluster of cases outside China is on a cruise ship quarantined off Japan’s coast.
An additional 39 people on board the Diamond Princess have tested positive for COVID-19, raising the total of cases to 174, while thousands of passengers and crew face a second week in quarantine.
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The case of a British man who passed on the virus to at least 11 other people—without having been in China—has raised fears of a new phase of contagion abroad.
The 53-year-old man caught the virus while attending a conference in Singapore and then passed it on to several compatriots while on holiday in the French Alps, before finally being diagnosed back in Britain.
He said Tuesday he had fully recovered, but remained in isolation in a central London hospital.
Doctors on the frontline of China’s new coronavirus epidemic are facing a daunting task: treat an ever-growing number of infected patients and risk getting infected themselves due to a drastic shortage of masks and other protective equipment.
Tired and understaffed, medical workers have had to deal with thousands of new cases per week in Wuhan, the city at the center of the outbreak that first emerged late last year.
Many doctors have had to see patients without proper masks or protective body suits, resorting to reusing the same equipment when they should be changed regularly.
Some have even worn diapers to avoid having to take off the equipment and make it last longer, according to a health official.
One doctor at a community clinic in Wuhan said he and at least 16 other colleagues were showing symptoms similar to the new virus, including lung infections and coughing.
“As doctors, we do not want to work while being a source of infection,” he said, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals.
But “right now, there is no one to replace you,” the doctor explained, adding that all medical staff without fever are expected to work.
“What would happen if there was no one working on the frontline?”
Some 44 percent of the 42,600 cases nationwide—and the majority of more than 1,100 deaths—have been in Wuhan, home to a wild animal market where the virus is suspected of having originated before spreading between humans.
The risks medical staff is facing were highlighted on Friday after Li Wenliang, a whistleblowing doctor in Wuhan, succumbed to the disease more than a month after he first raised alarm about a new SARS-like virus in the city.
His death unleashed an outpouring of grief and anger on Chinese social media, with 10 academics in Wuhan circulating an open letter calling for political reform and freedom of speech.
The deputy mayor of Wuhan said on Friday the city faced a daily shortage of 56,000 N95 masks and 41,000 protective suits.
The Chinese government has responded by mobilising the entire country to increase production of masks and suits.
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