In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of scientists affiliated with China’s government tried to distance the coronavirus from China by influencing its official naming. Nodding to the fact the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China, the scientists said they feared the virus would become known as the “Wuhan coronavirus” or “Wuhan pneumonia,” emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show.
The emails reveal an early front in the information war waged by the Chinese government to shape the narrative about the origins of the novel coronavirus.
The naming of the virus was “a matter of importance to the Chinese people” and references to the virus that cited Wuhan “stigmatize and insult” Wuhan residents, the correspondence from February 2020 states.
Specifically the Chinese scientists argued that the official technical name assigned to the virus – “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)”- was not only “hard to remember or recognize” but also “truly misleading” because it connected the new virus to the 2003 SARS-CoV outbreak that originated in China.
The virus was named by the Coronavirus Study Group (CSG) of the International Committee on Virus Taxonomy (ICTV).
Wuhan Institute of Virology senior scientist Zhengli Shi, who led the re-naming effort, described in an email to University of North Carolina virologist Ralph Baric, “a fierce discussion among Chinese virologists” over the name SARS-CoV-2.
Deyin Guo, former dean of Wuhan University’s School of Biomedical Sciences and co-author of the name-change proposal, wrote to CSG members that they had failed to consult their naming decision with “virologists including the first discovers [sic] of the virus and the first describers of the disease” from mainland China.
“It is not appropriate to use one disease-based virus’ name (like SARS-CoV) to name all other natural viruses that belong to the same species but have very different properties,” he wrote in the correspondence sent on behalf of himself and five other Chinese scientists.
The group proposed an alternative name – “Transmissible acute respiratory coronavirus (TARS-CoV). Another option, they said, could be “Human acute respiratory coronavirus (HARS-CoV).”
The email thread detailing a suggested name change was written to CSG Chair John Ziebuhr.
The correspondence shows that Ziebuhr disagreed with the Chinese group’s logic. He replied that “the name SARS-CoV-2 links this virus to other viruses (called SARS-CoVs or SARSr-CoVs) in this species including the prototype virus of the species rather than to the disease that once inspired the naming of this prototype virus nearly 20 years ago. The suffix -2 is used as a unique identifier and indicates that SARS-Co V-2 is yet ANOTHER (but closely related) virus in this species.”
China’s state-owned media firm CGTN reported another effort in March 2020 by Chinese virologists to re-name SARS-CoV-2 as human coronavirus 2019 (HCoV-19), which also didn’t pass muster with the CSG.
Naming an epidemic-causing virus—a responsibility of the World Health Organization (WHO) — has often been a politically charged exercise in taxonomic classification.
In a prior outbreak of the H5N1 flu virus that arose in China, the Chinese government pushed the WHO into creating nomenclature that would not tie virus names to their histories or locations of origin.
For more information
University of North Carolina Professor Ralph Baric’s emails, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through a public records request, can be found here: Baric emails batch #2: University of North Carolina (332 pages)
U.S. Right to Know is posting documents from our public records requests for our biohazards investigation. See: FOI documents on origins of SARS-CoV-2, hazards of gain-of-function research and biosafety labs.
Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan