The World Health Organization is planning to rename the monkeypox virus to “MPOX” in an effort to avoid racist stigma surrounding the old name after scientists aired concerns of discrimination because the virus’s origins are linked to African countries.
A formal announcement about the new name could come as soon as later on Wednesday, several months after the virus first gained a foothold in the United States, Europe, and as well as dozens of other countries, several people with knowledge of the decision told Politico.
The WHO said in June that it would begin the renaming process because monkeypox did not adhere to its current guidelines that discourage using geographic regions or animals, immediately renaming two variants of the virus from the Congo Basin clade and West African clade to Clade I and Clade II, respectively. The monkeypox virus was first named in 1958 at a time when names were typically related to the regions where the diseases were known to circulate.
“Current best practice is that newly-identified viruses, related disease, and virus variants should be given names with the aim to avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups, and minimize any negative impact on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare,” the WHO said.
The decision came after a group of scientists appealed to the WHO to change the name, arguing that “continued reference to, and nomenclature of this virus being African is not only inaccurate but is also discriminatory and stigmatizing.”
The WHO recruited the public’s help workshopping new names for the monkeypox virus, opening up a forum for people to suggest names. Dozens of self-identified scientists, academics, and activists submitted suggestions such as Mpox, TRUMP-22, and POXI-22 for the new name.
“Mpox is a name that was generated by an alliance of Canadian LGBT+ community organizations that work directly with the impacted population, men who have sex with men,” Samuel Miriello, HR and partnerships director at REZO Sante, argued in his submission. “Mpox is, by far, the most understandable name.”
The health organization had not established a timeline for when the name change would become official, though Biden administration officials and members of the scientific community urged the process to be quick, worrying that continued stigma around the name would impede vaccination efforts, especially among people of color.
The U.S. has reported nearly 30,000 monkeypox infections this year, many of those being men who have sex with men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Case numbers have continued to drop off in the U.S. since a peak in early August as the federal government expanded availability of a monkeypox/smallpox vaccine.