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How do you name a virus?

May 24, 2013

    Hanna Jaquith, Daily Briefing

    A mysterious new virus that is responsible for the deaths of 21 patients in the Middle East and Europe has been renamed again: It's now "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome," or "MERS" for short.

    The respiratory illness—which has infected  42 people in the Middle East and Europe—first surfaced last year in Saudi Arabia as "human betacoronavirus 2c EMC." That name was followed by "2c England-Qatar," "2C Jordan-N3," and "England 1." But none of those names stuck, either.  Many researchers have resorted to "novel coronavirus"—new crown-shaped virus. 

    The Coronavirus Study Group (CSG), which announced its decision to name the virus in the Journal of Virology last week, says the "MERS" designation has been endorsed by the Saudi, Dutch, and British scientists who discovered it—as well as the World Health Organization's European office and the Saudi health ministry.

    Yet, the matter is far from settled, according to Reuters.

    Apparently, naming viruses can be touchy. Case in point: When HIV was discovered 30 years ago, it was called "GRID," or "gay-related immune deficiency," leading some to refer to it as "the gay plague." The name was only changed to the more accurate, less stigmatizing HIV after it became clear that the sexually transmitted infection also infected heterosexuals and haemophiliacs.

    Countries don't want their names associated with diseases, either. For instance, the 2009-2010 pandemic flu strain was dubbed "H1N1" after an Israeli health minister objected to "swine flu" on religious grounds. Meanwhile, "Mexican flu" offended an entire country, for obvious reasons. Similarly, the Indian health ministry accused scientists of "malicious propaganda" for naming a drug-resistant bacteria "New Delhi metallo beta lactamase."

    "Clearly, naming viruses and diseases after ethnicity, religion, gender, and lifestyle is potentially stigmatizing and offensive, and thus unacceptable," GSC chief Raoul de Groot told Reuters, adding, "All parties involved were acutely aware of sensitivities around geographic naming and the issue has been weighed very carefully."

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