Call novel Coronavirus 'COVID-19', says WHO

Current outbreak's death rate in epicentre estimated at 18%; it was 10% globally for Sars in 2002-03

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Wednesday 12 February 2020

The novel coronavirus, whose outbreak has kept the international community on its toes, now has an official name: COVID-19. ‘CO’ stands for corona, ‘VI’ for virus, ‘D’ for disease and ‘19’ for 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on February 11, 2020.

The virus was being termed 2019-nCoV since the virus started infecting humans a month-and-a-half ago. Some even called it the ‘Wuhan coronavirus’, after Wuhan — the city in China's Hubei province that has been the outbreak's epicentre.

“We had to find a name that did not refer to a particular geography, animal or even an individual,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva.

The official nomenclature aims at preventing incorrect projections and stigmatisation. It gives a standard format for future use in such outbreaks, Ghebreyesus said. 

“We will have outbreaks of coronavirus in the future too, and this sets a template to name them,” WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan said.

Deadlier than expected?

Meanwhile, the virus's case fatality ratio (CFR) in Hubei (18 per cent) was found to be nearly double the global CFR for the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or Sars, (10 per cent) by Imperial College London.

CFR among travellers outside mainland China were estimated at 1.2- 5.6 per cent, according to the fourth severity report of the outbreak by the college.

Researchers across the world earlier pegged the CFR for within mainland China at 2-3 per cent.

The ratio indicates the proportion of infected people likely to die. Sars was also caused by a type of coronavirus and started in southern China’s Guangdong province.

“It is important to note that the differences in these estimates do not reflect underlying differences in disease severity between countries. CFRs seen in individual countries will vary, depending on the sensitivity of different surveillance systems to detect cases of differing levels of severity and the clinical care offered to severely ill cases,” Imperial College’s report said.

Viral march continues

The total confirmed cases rose to 44,665 in China and 45,182 globally on February 12. The death toll has climbed to 1,115, an increase of 95 deaths in 24 hours. 

Increasing evidence demonstrates the link between the novel coronavirus and other similar known coronaviruses circulating in bats, and more specifically those of the Rhinolophus bat sub-species, the WHO said in its last situational update on February 11.

Research papers around the world, including one published in The Lancet in January, had said the same.

“These sub-species are abundant and widely present in southern China, and across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Recent studies indicate that more than 500 CoVs have been identified in bats in China,” the update said.

“(It is) to be noted that serological studies conducted in rural human populations living close to natural bat habitat in caves revealed a 2.9 per cent bat-CoV sero-prevalence, demonstrating that humans exposure to bat-CoVs might be common,” it added. 

“However, the route of transmission to humans at the start of this event remains unclear. Bats are rare in markets in China but hunted and sold directly to restaurants for food. The current, most likely hypothesis is that an intermediary host animal has played a role in the transmission, the UN health body clarified.  

This is the first time that the WHO has hinted about the host and existence of the intermediate host.

WHO officials were also asked to react to reports that a few sea ports were turning ships away after a cruise ship in Japan confirmed 135 positive cases of COVID-2019.

Mike Ryan, WHO’s director of emergencies programme, said there was no doubt that people were at risk in cruise and cargo ships. But there could be no blanket ban on them from plying.

“A balance on health concerns and the economy has to be struck. Proper risk management has to be ensured,” he said.

Ryan was also asked to comment on a British national who has infected 11 other people. Such people are usually referred to as ‘super spreaders’ in epidemiological science and there have been past instances.

For instance, during the Sars epidemic in 2003, a Chinese doctor infected with the virus travelled to Hong Kong where he stayed in a hotel. The guests who stayed at the hotel, travelled to different countries and this led to a global epidemic at that time.

Ryan was asked whether the British national was also a super spreader. He said there was no evidence to suggest this and added that no stigma should be attached to the disease.

Also, this incident should not be construed to mean that the virus was mutating as research was still on to asses it, Ryan said. 

The WHO is hosting some 400 scientists and researchers from around the world in Geneva, Switzerland on February 11-12 to first decide what important research questions need to be addressed so that a roadmap can be prepared.  

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