World Health Organization officials warned against calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” as U.S. President Donald Trump has done, saying that it could unintentionally lead to racial profiling.
“Viruses no know borders and they don’t care about your ethnicity, the color of your skin or how much money you have in the bank. So it’s really important we be careful in the language we use lest it lead to the profiling of individuals associated with the virus,” Dr. Mike Ryan, the executive director of WHO’s emergencies program, said at a press conference Wednesday when asked about Trump’s comments inciting violence against Asians.
Since emerging from Wuhan, China just over three months ago, the new coronavirus has spread to almost every country around the world, infecting more than 212,000 people and killing at least 8,727 as of Wednesday afternoon, according to data compiled by John’s Hopkins University.
Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates agreed with Ryan, writing in an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit on Wednesday, “we should not call this the Chinese virus.”
Trump defended his characterization of the coronavirus at a White House press conference discussing the pandemic Wednesday.
“It’s not racist at all,” Trump said, “No, not at all.”
Trump was asked about his persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” despite reports that dozens of incidents of bias against Chinese-Americans who have been blamed for allegedly spreading the coronavirus.
“Because it comes from China,” Trump said to the reporter who asked him that question. “That’s why.”
WHO officials intentionally gave the virus a generic name to avoid stigmatizing a country or particular group, choosing a name that doesn’t refer to a geographical location, animals, an individual or a group of people. The CO stands for corona, the VI for virus and the D for disease. COVID-19 was first detected late last year.
“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said when the new name was announced Feb. 11.
Ryan repeated WHO’s calls for solidarity, saying that characterizing a virus in such a manner could result in xenophobic behavior and “I’m sure anyone would regret profiling a virus along those lines.”
“This is a time for solidarity, this is a time for facts, this is a time to move forward together, to fight this virus together. There is no blame in this,” he said. “All we need now is to identify the things we need to do to move forward quickly, with speed and to avoid any indication of ethnic or other associations with this virus.”
CNBC’s William Feuer, Jordan Novet and Dan Mangan contributed to this article.