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Int. Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses tasked with naming virus

Posted Feb 5, 2020 by Karen Graham
It has infected thousands of people, closed borders and put parts of China into lockdown. But the virus causing the illness does not have a proper name. That will soon change. The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses will come up with a name.
Thermal monitoring station to screen inbound passengers at Shanghai Pudong International Airport on ...
Thermal monitoring station to screen inbound passengers at Shanghai Pudong International Airport on January 22, 2020.
Ptrump16 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The world's latest viral outbreak is caused by a coronavirus. It is a virus, of course, and is differentiated from other viruses because it has a crown-shaped appearance under a microscope - hence the word coronavirus. Yet it is being called "coronavirus," "new coronavirus," "Wuhan coronavirus," and a few other names.
The World Health Organization came up with a temporary name - 2019-nCOV - but this is quite a mouthful, says Forbes. This was done to give this particular virus an "official" moniker to differentiate it from other viruses going around.
"The naming of a new virus is often quite delayed and the focus until now has been on the public health response, which is understandable," says Crystal Watson, senior scholar and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, according to the BBC. "But there are reasons the naming should be a priority."
An undated photo from the British Health Protection Agency shows the Coronavirus seen under an elect...
An undated photo from the British Health Protection Agency shows the Coronavirus seen under an electron miscroscope
, British Health Protection Agency/AFP
"The name it has now is not easy to use and the media and the public are using other names for the virus," says Dr. Watson. "The danger when you don't have an official name is that people start using terms like China Virus, and that can create a backlash against certain populations."
The awesome responsibility of naming a virus
The urgent task of formally naming the virus is the responsibility of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). “This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected,” said Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security at WHO.
And naming the virus causing an epidemic without careful consideration of the social, economic and cultural factors involved can be problematic Think of the people in Spain dealing with the name "Spanish Flu" in 1919 or chicken farmers dodging dirty looks during a “bird flu” epidemic.
MERS virus as seen on electron microscopy.
MERS virus as seen on electron microscopy.
CDC / Wikimedia commons
Today, the 2019-nCOV has already spawned a number of names that are inappropriate - like the "Wuhan Virus," using the city's name or the "China virus." Names like this can lead to "an unprovoked backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals," said WHO in a statement.
In 2015, WHO issued guidelines for naming new human infectious diseases. Even with following guidelines, the formal name chosen still has to be confirmed by the International Classification of Diseases (ICD1) at a later stage.
The new guidelines state that the name for the new coronavirus should not include:
*Geographical locations
*People's names
*The name of an animal or a kind of food
*References to a particular culture or industry
China said it would bring Wuhan residents back from overseas 'as soon as possible' due to ...
China said it would bring Wuhan residents back from overseas 'as soon as possible' due to 'practical difficulties that Chinese citizens from Hubei, especially Wuhan, have faced overseas'
STR, AFP
And of course, the name needs to be short, but descriptive, like Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). Also, the name has to have a certain "hook" to it says Benjamin Neuman, a professor of virology who, along with 10 other people, sits on the ICTV study group that has been deliberating the new name.
"It has to roll off the tongue a little faster than the other names out there." The ICTV group has been discussing the new name for about two weeks now, and are submitting the name to a scientific journal for publication and hope to announce it within days.
"We will find out in the future whether we got it right," says Prof Neuman. "For someone like me, helping to name an important virus may ultimately end up being longer-lasting and more helpful than a career's worth of work. It's a big responsibility."