By Duncan Bartlett for China Plus
In the international battle against Covid-19, we need to choose our weapons carefully.
That means selecting the appropriate words to explain the virus and its risks to the public.
Our language should be scientifically accurate and avoid politics.
Unfortunately, the press and social media have allowed misleading ideas about coronavirus to spread rapidly.
In the past few weeks, several countries, including my own, Great Britain, have identified new variants of the disease.
New strains have also been found in South Africa, Brazil and Russia.
As a result, there are a lot of alarming headlines about the “British variant” or “Brazil variant”, which give the impression that somehow our nations were to blame.
China was also smeared. Donald Trump repeatedly talked of the “Chinese virus” and – outrageously – even used the racist term “kung flu” on Twitter.
Yet all the countries affected by coronavirus, including Britain, Brazil and China, are involved in an intense effort to share the scientific data about what they have found, so that others can benefit.
Scientists in Wuhan first shared the genetic sequence of the coronavirus genome, known as 2019-nCoV, on January 11th, 2020.
This early action by China enabled medical institutions around the world to work together in finding treatments and vaccines, long before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global emergency.
Mutations to 2019-nCoV since then have been the result of a natural process which causes genetic changes in the virus, particularly in the spike protein, which attaches it to human cells.
In the UK, there is a great deal of concern about a new strain called B.1.1.7. It is more contagious than previous types and this has led to a very strict national lockdown, as well as travel bans.
The UK’s media initially called the new type of Covid-19 the “Kent variation” because two samples of it were identified through a genome screening process, which took place in Kent – a wealthy region in southern England – on September 20th last year. The following day, the same strain was found in London.
Since then, B.1.1.7. has been identified in fifty other countries, including the United States. The American media often calls it “the British variant”, to the dismay of British people.
Now the World Health Organisation is trying to formulate a better system for naming the variants.
Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies official, acknowledged that the geographical names can be a problem.
“It’s really important that when people call it the ‘UK variant’ or ‘South African variant’ that we aren’t assigning values to these countries; these countries aren’t the cause of this problem,” he said at a recent news conference. Instead, he said, “they should be commended and lauded for investing in the systems that allow this kind of monitoring.”
The UK conducts far more genetic sequencing than many other nations and this intense genomic surveillance means that when new strains appear, Britain is likely to find them early.
It is then committed to sharing the data internationally, just as the Chinese scientists did last January.
One problem for the media is that the current names for variants are difficult to remember. For example, the so-called “South African variant” is 501.V2.
Another difficulty is that scientists use a variety of naming systems which are not all in harmony with each other.
Concerns over stigmatising a country as the source of a pandemic are not new.
When influenza spread throughout the world in the wake of the First World War, it was dubbed “the Spanish flu.”
That was partly because the first cases were reported in Spain but also because Spain was more open about the problem. Many other countries where the disease was rife tried to cover it up, as news was being censored at the time.
I note that CGTN has advised its reporters to be cautious when describing the new variants.
It says writers should try not to associate the new strains of covid with a country or a people, in order to avoid discrimination. This will mean that journalists need to take a little extra time over their work, which is probably a sensible approach when dealing with a complex and sensitive issue.
BBC television, where I used to work, is also being cautious. Instead of saying “the Brazil variant”, news bulletins now include phrases such as “the variant of coronavirus which was first identified in Brazil.”
The World Health Organisation has not yet proposed a nomenclature which is easy for journalists to use.
And even if it does offer a better naming system which is helpful for the media, the WHO cannot control the way people discuss the disease online, or on social media, or in conversations with their friends.
However, those in the scientific community and the press bear a responsibility to separate the science from the geopolitics.
It is surely worth making a little more effort over accuracy, in order to further public understanding of the situation.
Note: Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a Research Associate at SOAS China Institute, University of London. The opinions expressed are the author’s own.