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If Wuhan Were Located Outside Of China The World Health Organisation Would Use The Name “Wuhan Virus” Instead Of “COVID-19”

COVID-19, which is short for “Coronavirus disease of 2019”, has become one of the most used terms over the past year not only within the global health community but also among regular people worldwide, and understandably so considering the universal havoc that the pandemic has wreaked in a relatively short period of time.

But one can make the argument that if Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 first emerged, had been located somewhere in Africa instead of China, the global health community would not have hesitated at all to call it “the Wuhan virus”. 

In fact, while the name “COVID-19” may seem fairly innocuous at first glance, it constitutes a huge –and slightly suspicious– shift from a decades-long unspoken norm of how such epidemics are referred to, which basically relies on their location of origin.

So, is there a reasonable, historically consistent justification for omitting the origin of COVID-19, which is the city of Wuhan in China, from the official designation of the virus, or is there an ulterior motive behind this decision?

Luckily, there have been numerous documented virus outbreaks in the past century that provide a big enough sample size to answer that question.

Still a fresh memory in a lot of people’s minds, the Ebola virus, which caused an epidemic that took the lives of 11,325 people between 2014 and 2016, originally got its name from the location where the virus was first detected in 1976: the Ebola River located in what has now become the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Another widely known virus whose effects have been felt worldwide is the mosquito-spread, fever-inducing West Nile virus first discovered in Uganda in 1937 and named based on its geographic position relative to the world’s longest river.

Uganda also happens to be the birthplace of the Zika virus responsible for the 2015 epidemic, and which was named in reference to the Zika Forest located in the West African nation.

Elsewhere in Africa, the Lassa virus that emerged in 1969 also got its label based on its place of discovery, the town of Lassa in Borno State, Nigeria.

At this point, a skeptical reader may assume that this nomenclature standard is only applied to African nations, which would provide an excuse for not labelling COVID-19 as the Wuhan virus.

However, contrary to what it may seem the practice of branding viruses based on their location of origin goes well beyond the African continent.

Who could forget the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918, a global outbreak that impacted around 500 million people — a number that at the time made up a third of the world’s population– and whose name was clearly in reference to what was at the time the kingdom of Spain?

Interestingly, there was evidence showing that cases of the virus had occurred earlier in other nations, but the inaccurate designation stuck nonetheless, proving that the custom of naming diseases based on specific locations has always applied, even in ambiguous circumstances.

Even the Marburg virus, considered the deadliest virus known to man, was labelled in reference to the German city of Marburg where infection cases surfaced during the 1960s.

Outbreaks occurring taking place in the American continent are no exception; the Junin virus responsible for the Argentine haemorrhagic fever earned its unique designation from the Argentinian city of Junin, where the first cases of infection were documented in 1958.  

But what about Asian countries to which China belongs? Perhaps the long-standing tradition of naming new viruses based on geography never made its way to the eastern continent.

Well, that claim could not be further from the truth, as evidenced by the infamous Hong Kong Flu of 1968, an outbreak that took a million lives worldwide in the span of two years, and which originated in the region of Hong Kong, as its name clearly suggests.

The Asian continent was also home to the Hantavirus, named after the Hantan River area in South Korea, where it was first manifested, and the Nipah virus, named after the Nipah river located near a town in Malaysia where the first infected individual lived.

So, bearing in mind the overwhelming historical precedent of viruses being named after the region in which they had been discovered, one would have expected the Coronavirus of 2019 to be referred to as the “Wuhan virus”, but surprise, surprise, the rules were bent to fit the narrative of the Chinese government and absolve it of any potential blame it might receive for harbouring the worst global health catastrophe of the last hundred years.

Furthermore, the Coronavirus mutations that surfaced later on were widely referred to as the British, Brazilian, and South African variants instead of a more geographically neutral designation.

All things considered, it seems fairly obvious that an exception was made at the behest of China, 

The main culprit at which the world could point the finger is the World Health Organisation (WHO) whose status as the top international health agency gives it the power to set the tone of the global discussion around the pandemic.

But regardless of who is to blame, it is hard to argue, in light of past and present evidence, against the claim that COVID-19 would be called the “Wuhan virus” if the city of Wuhan were located in Africa, or any country except for China. 


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