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Solving The Coronavirus Identity Crisis: A Strategy For Prevention

This article was originally published on Forbes.

The new coronavirus, like its predecessors, is a beast to be reckoned with. And yet its working name, 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), is curiously tame.

So technical and nondescript a label is hardly befitting of an epidemic that will not only harm thousands, but also demands an urgent, timely response. At a time when onlookers must be spurred into action, a name like 2019-nCoV inspires the opposite impulse: to forget or file away.

We need a name that is both memorable and searchable. It must be capable of anchoring an ongoing conversation between scientists, government officials, and the general public—one in which crucial information about safety and protection is routinely relayed. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the name of the first outbreak, did the trick. Why can’t we do the same now?

Government and public health officials, to be fair, aren’t keen to repeat the mistake they made with Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS): creating a lasting association between an infectious disease and its place of origin. MERS traveled to countries well beyond the Middle East, and the new coronavirus is following suit.

The longer they hesitate, however, the longer media outlets and their audiences will continue to fall back on “Wuhan coronavirus” and, even worse, “Wu flu” as shorthand for the disease. Wuhan is not the enemy. The coronavirus is. Unless we give the new strain a name that suggests continuity with the outbreaks of decades prior, we risk losing sight of our target.

In this vein, the name I propose is Coronavirus Acute Respiratory Syndrome Epidemic 3, or CARS-3. Like SARS, it rolls off the tongue. Unlike SARS, it reminds us that this is the third time we’ve suffered from a fatal coronavirus attack. If we want it to be our last, we can’t let it slip from our collective memory. Something has to stick—and it’s not going to be 2019-nCoV.