(CNSNews.com) – Many of the most serious epidemics in history have been named for the countries, cities, or other geographical locations where they originated or were first identified.
In two of the best-known cases – Spanish flu and German measles – the identifications are not even valid: The geographic source of the flu that killed millions in 1918-1919 was never established, and the disease properly known as rubella was nicknamed German measles only because physicians in that country were first to identify it.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has been accused of racism for calling the novel coronavirus that first emerged in Wuhan, China, late last year “the Chinese coronavirus.”
“Everything you need to know about the Chinese coronavirus can be found on one, regularly-updated website,” McCarthy tweeted on Monday, drawing attention to the CDC’s website dedicated to the outbreak.
He also has referred to the “Chinese coronavirus” during television appearances.
“When they [administration officials] came to brief Congress the first time in January, you know why people didn’t pay attention? Because the Democrats were spending all their time impeaching during that time,” McCarthy told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham.
“They’ve been working on this Chinese coronavirus back then, preparing for it. And now the Democrats, they can’t say any of the wrongdoing about China, they only want to try to go after the president.”
“Viruses don’t have nationalities,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) retorted in response to McCarthy’s tweet. “This is racist.”
Among other reactions on Twitter, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted: "Bigoted statements which spread misinformation and blame Asians and the Asian American community for #coronavirus make us all less safe. @GOPLeader must delete this tweet and apologize immediately."
Cool Quit founder and CEO Eugene Gu said, “Republican lawmakers are making a concerted effort to label the coronavirus with an ethnicity and geographic origin, which the WHO specifically warned against when it named it Covid-19.”
Others have also complained about the use of the word “Wuhan” in connection with the outbreak.
After Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) announced he was self-quarantining after contact at CPAC with a person subsequently confirmed to have “the Wuhan Virus,” MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted, “Just astoundingly gross to call it the Wuhan Virus.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also referred to “Wuhan coronavirus,” angering the Chinese government and state media for doing so.
A Nexis search finds more than 10,000 uses of the term “Wuhan coronavirus,” with media outlets in many parts of the world, including Asia, using it unabashedly and often.
“Wuhan coronavirus” came up in numerous New York Times stories, although its usage dropped off in early February. The Times also used the term “Chinese coronavirus.” CNN has used both “Wuhan coronavirus” and “Chinese coronavirus.”
When the novel coronavirus first emerged, health experts used the working name 2019-nCoV. It was only on February 11 that World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the formal name for the virus is SARS-CoV-2, and the formal name for the disease it causes is COVID-19.
“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,” he said at the time. “Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing.”
In a subsequent memo dealing with “stigma” relating to the outbreak, WHO urged people not to “attach locations or ethnicity to the disease.”
“[T]his is not a ‘Wuhan Virus,’ ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Asian Virus,’” it said. “The official name for the disease was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatization – the ‘co’ stands for Corona, ‘vi’ for virus and ‘d’ for disease, 19 is because the disease emerged in 2019.”
Through history, and over the last century especially, diseases have frequently been named for the place where they first emerged. Examples follow:
Spanish Flu: An H1N1 flu virus which spread worldwide in 1918-1919, killing an estimated 50 million people. It’s not known exactly where it originated, but Spanish media were first to report on it, and the Spanish king contracted it, so the name was coined and stuck.
Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS): A coronavirus outbreak, first reported in Saudi Arabia, in 2012-13.
Ebola: a rare and deadly disease named for a river in Zaire, now DRC, in the 1970s.
Guinea Worm: Known for centuries under various names, but named for the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa in the 17th century.
West Nile virus: A mosquito-borne virus, named for West Nile region of Uganda where it was first isolated in the 1930s.
German Measles: Rubella, named not for its origin, but because German physicians were first to identify it in the 19th century.
Omsk Hemorrhagic Fever: Emerged in Omsk, Russia in the 1940s.
Marburg virus: An Ebola-type hemorrhagic virus named for a town in Germany where an outbreak occurred in a lab in the 1960s.
Lassa fever: A hemorrhagic fever named for a town in Nigeria where it was identified in the 1960s.
St. Louis Encephalitis: Named for St. Louis, Missouri, where an epidemic emerged in the 1930s.
La Crosse Encephalitis: Named for La Crosse, Wisconsin, in the 1960s.
Hantavirus: Linked to rodents, some strains can be lethal to humans. Named for the Hantan river in South Korea, where it was isolated in the 1970s.
Ross River Fever: A flu-like disease traced to Ross River, Australia, in the 1920s.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: A tick-borne infection named for the Rocky Mountains, since the 1920s.
Lyme Disease: Named for Lyme, Conn., the location of a 1970s outbreak.