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No one likes being associated with a notorious virus, so naming one can be a rather fraught political process.
For the new virus, the World Health Organization currently uses the assiduously neutral placeholder name of 2019-nCoV—2019 for the year the virus first appeared and nCov for “novel coronavirus.” (Corona refers to the crown-shaped spikes found in coronaviruses, a group that includes MERS and SARS but normally only infects animals.) But the date in 2019-nCoV could easily get confusing as the outbreak continues in 2020, and especially if it comes back in future years. In the past, experts in an International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) study group have worked with the WHO and local authorities to officially name new viruses.
This time, for 2019-nCoV, they will be working under the WHO’s best practices—created in 2015 to address the fraught process of naming. The best practices discourage geographic names, people, animal species, cultural references, and “terms that incite undue fear,” such as unknown, death, fatal, and epidemic. They encourage names that describe symptoms (such as respiratory, spongiform, deficiency), groups affected (juvenile, pediatric, maternal), time course (acute, transient), severity, seasonality (winter, summer), and even arbitrary identifiers (Alpha, beta, a, b, I, II, III, 1, 2, 3).
The extremely descriptive names that result from this process can be a mouthful, so the guideline suggests evaluating acronyms for offensiveness too. SARS, for example, is an acronym for “severe acute respiratory syndrome,” which checks all the boxes for descriptive terms. But SARS was also uncomfortably close to SAR, or Hong Kong’s designation as a special administrative region in China. “Hong Kong suffered mightily from SARS and did not appreciate the fact that the virus, which originated in China, appeared to hint at a Hong Kong origin,” Helen Branswell writes in STAT.
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The last outbreak in which scientists had to name a new coronavirus was MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome. It was first identified in a sample from Saudi Arabia in 2012, and the country’s initials were in an early name. The Saudi government wasn’t too happy about that. It took another five months for the ICTV study group, in consultation with the WHO and the Saudi government, to agree on MERS. (Though the WHO now cites MERS as an example of what not to use, because of the geographic region still in the name.)
Raoul de Groot, who chaired the study group when it named MERS, says he expects the process to move faster this time, given how quickly the 2019-nCoV outbreak has spread and made headlines. For de Groot, a virologist at Utrecht University who has been studied coronaviruses for 40 years, this has been surreal to watch. When he started studying them, he says, “coronaviruses were actually a backwater.” The viruses were known to infect animals—but it’s only with SARS, MERS, and now the yet-to-be-officially named 2019-nCoV that coronaviruses have been very relevant to humans. “If I would have had a choice, I would rather still be working in an obscure field,” he says. A once-obscure scientific term has now become a household word, even as the official name is still pending.