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When President Trump referred to the “Chinese virus,” the media were quick to point out problems with this terminology, lambasting it as xenophobic and racist. But as new variants appear, some media outlets are doing the same thing: talk of the “British,” “Brazilian,” and “South African” Covid-19 variants abounds. Even scientific journals are using this terminology.

But labeling viral variants by their geographic origin is incorrect. Just as the “China virus” should be called SARS-CoV-2 or the novel coronavirus, so too should new variants be described by their proper nomenclature: B.1.1.7, not “U.K. variant” and P.1, not the “Brazilian variant.”

As we face an influx of novel virus variants, it’s worth revisiting the problems with geographic-based virus nomenclature.

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The impulse to label viruses and other pathogens according to their alleged geographic origins is not new. Think of the Spanish flu, German measles, Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, Brazilian purpuric fever, and others. Ebola was named after the river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo near where the virus was first identified; the Zika virus was first identified in the Zika Forest in Uganda.

The tendency to name pathogens and diseases in this fashion seems almost as contagious as the organisms themselves.

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At first glance, this geographic mode of naming pathogens may seem sensible. After all, it’s important to identify the origins of disease-causing organisms to monitor and control their spread. Political commentator Bill Maher defended the term “Chinese flu” as a factual descriptor, arguing that China should be blamed for the virus.

But these arguments miss the larger stakes of disease nomenclature. As the World Health Organization cautioned in 2015, including geographic locations in disease names has various problematic implications. Not least among them: Those eager to avoid having diseases named for their countries might cover up the appearance of new ones, as many are suggesting China did in the early days of this pandemic.

Geographic naming of pathogens and diseases can also foster a false sense of security. Labeling a virus as “foreign” may lead to the sense that it can be avoided by simply cutting off travel from the country in question, though public health authorities caution against disease management approaches that attribute contagious illnesses to a particular location.

Early in the pandemic, President Donald Trump was quick to ban travel to countries that had large Covid-19 outbreaks, such as Italy, South Korea, and China. But as America’s Covid-19 numbers demonstrate, cordoning approaches to pandemic management are grossly insufficient, given the density and interconnectedness of the human population.

Geography-based disease names can also lead to stigma and prejudice towards specific ethnic or racial groups, as it has for Asian Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic. Stigma causes more than just hurt feelings: It kills.

Take the case of HIV, perhaps the most stigmatized and feared modern virus. When it was first described in 1981, the disease it caused was called gay-related immunodeficiency, or GRID. Others called it gay cancer. Much like the geography-based labels for coronavirus variants, the terms GRID and gay cancer attributed this illness to a specific demographic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped using the term GRID in 1982, but the association between HIV and the gay community had been cemented, and persists today, even though it is now known to affect individuals of any sexuality.

This naming had immense implications. At a time when sodomy laws prevailed and gay marriage was illegal, an HIV diagnosis was a matter of profound stigma. This naming also made diagnosis difficult outside the gay community: If the disease was “gay-related,” how would someone who wasn’t gay have it?

The nomenclature has ramifications to the present day. HIV is the only infectious disease for which many states require explicit patient consent for testing, a step that slows diagnosis and treatment and keeps the AIDS epidemic from abating. Patient reticence to seek testing is particularly tragic given that, if HIV patients receive an early diagnosis and consistent treatment, they can expect to lead normal lives with normal lifespans.

While this fear certainly did not come from the term GRID alone, that nomenclature amplified the stigma.

Using geography- or demography-based names for organisms or diseases is problematic for another reason: It is often wrong. Britain may have been the first to report the B.1.1.7 variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, but that doesn’t mean the variant originated there. Instead, it’s possible that the virus was first detected in Britain because of the country’s particularly robust system of virus surveillance and genetic testing. This has happened before. During the terrible influenza outbreak of 1918-1919, Spain was the first country to report the virus, not because the virus originated in Spain but because, thanks to the country’s neutral stance in World War I, its press was operating unfettered by the wartime restrictions facing many other countries.

As the world grapples with a stream of new coronavirus variants, we should not lose sight of the larger implications of naming diseases and the pathogens that cause them. Call them by their scientific names, such as B.1.1.7, or say “the variant spreading in the U.K.”

Don’t label pathogens or diseases as if they have nationalities (or sexualities, in the case of HIV). Naming viruses and variants according to their alleged country or demography of origin has historically proven effective at generating misinformation and prejudice, not medically meaningful interventions.

Katie Baca is a historian of science and medicine and preceptor in expository writing at Harvard University. Susana Bejar is an internal medicine physician in New York City.

  • Despite being co-written by a “preceptor in expository writing”, Maher’s right on this one. It’s the China virus.

  • Meanwhile, in the real world…how much did you pay for a Harvard education? No one is going to but actually it B.1.1.7. Please simplify languages and ideas for more efficient communication. This article is hilariously out of touch.

    • If B.1.1.7 is too much of a mouthful, you can just say “the variant currently attacking Britain” or something of that nature. And yes, there are other issues in the world (including high college tuition). Nonetheless, for me, that doesn’t mean this issue isn’t worth commenting on. Thanks!

  • Thank you for the article on virus naming. As far as I can tell, there is no clear naming procedure for viral strains or variants. Confusion about the real nature of the latest “novel coronavirus” has resulted from the media choosing to refer to both the virus and the disease it causes as COVID. COVID is the host’s reaction to infection by the virus SARS-CoV-2. COVID is not transmissible any more than a sneeze is transmissible. The vaccines are directed to SARS-CoV-2, not to COVID.

    The sooner we get the SARS-CoV-2 variants clearly named in the media, the sooner the nature of these variants can be separated from geographic blame. Naming what the public seems to interpret as the “first” variants causes people to believe the UK and South Africa are responsible for the origin of the variations (mutations). The countries named did not cause the mutations. The UK, South Africa, and South Carolina, for example, discovered a variant existed because they are carefully tracking changes in the virus.

    The geographic names confer the same blame the name “Spanish flu” placed on Spain many years ago. Spain was the nation that did not hide evidence of the flu; other countries refused to acknowledge its existence.

    SARS-CoV-2 had several names before the appropriate agencies chose the one we now use. The confusion with COVID remains, just as the confusion between HIV and AIDS continues.

    As new coronaviruses move into humans, having a clear identification of each virus could help people understand the relationship among virus, bacteria, and disease. We say the public is ignorant about science. Isn’t it time we help everyone by using scientific names–not blame frames?

    • A reason that the media confuse SARS-CoV-2 and Covid is that SARS-CoV-2 is long and unpronounceable and sounds like a part number whereas Covid is short and memorable. It’s the same reason that the media and public will never refer to the British variant as B.1.1.7.

      The key problem that we need to focus on is finding effective vaccines and therapies and delivering to the public. And communicating in a comprehensible manner. The British variant works as a phrase better than B.1.1.7. And Britain will survive the naming and the impact of the naming won’t be much different if it is called the British variant or the variant first found circulating in Britain, except the former is shorter and easier to use.

    • Using Latin doesn’t help anyone understand anything.

      For example, statim.

      Shortened to stat.

      Written on prescriptions.

      And, then escaped into the wild.

  • Nothing wrong with naming a variant or virus from where it was first found. No one wants to remember a series of numbers. In the realm of important topics, naming after geographical places is a non-event. Stuff happens, deal with it. China will learn not to be so easily offended too.

    • Would the US be happier if the Spanish flu were correctly identified as the US flu? That flu virus didn’t originate in Spain, it was in Kansas. People hate being blamed for bad things. That’s the whole idea behind blaming a country for something that affects other countries.

    • I don’t think that the U.S. would care if the virus were called the U.S. virus or the El Paso virus. What matters is finding cures and vaccines. And we should be doing more genetic testing so that we can trace the variants. Not worrying about names.

  • Interesting insights about radio operators! If the technical nomenclature is too complex, the following language also works: “the virus strain currently ravaging Britain.” This language gets the message across without making it sound as if the virus came from or is somehow peculiar to Britain.

  • Trump called it the China virus because he wanted to relay the message that it was released from China and that they were irresponsible.

    • Trump is on record saying he wanted to downplay the virus, spread misinformation and was incredibly irresponsible in his handling of the pandemic too so we can call it the “Trump virus” too, I guess. I’m not excusing the Chinese government. The Trump response to the virus was a failure.

  • Using a geographic / tactical name provides ease of information to the public. The public does not know disease variants by numbers. It is no different than what amateur radio operators do in an emergency. We switch to tactical / geographic call signs rather than our FCC ID and only use the FCC ID as required by law. That way there is no miscommunication regarding where we are located. For technical use you are correct of course.

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