A Virus With a Deadly Boring Name

Mother and son with face masks approach a checkpoint.
A mother and son arrive at a checkpoint in Hubei province.Thomas Peter / Reuters

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Since it first appeared in Wuhan, China, late last year, a newly discovered coronavirus has sickened more than 9,800 people, killed at least 213, caused a run on face masks, and shut down travel throughout China. All of this has happened, and the virus still doesn’t have an official name.

The virus’s temporary designation—2019-nCoV—is neither catchy nor pithy. Headlines routinely refer to this virus as the “Wuhan coronavirus” or even just the “Chinese virus.” But those names tie the virus to particular places, going against current best practices. Often, the virus is called, simply, “coronavirus,” a broad term that includes many viruses other than this one. In the middle of an outbreak, picking a name might not seem like the most pressing problem, but whatever name is chosen—or sticks to the virus unofficially—can ultimately have lingering effects.

In the 20th century, virus hunters frequently named their discoveries according to geography: Spanish flu; Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever; Lyme, for the town in Connecticut; Ebola, for a nearby river. These names forever bound these locales to diseases that may or may not have actually originated there. In 2009, “swine flu” led Egypt to slaughter all of its pigs, even though that virus was not spread through swine. The National Pork Board in the U.S. hated the name too.

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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.

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.