How Do Viruses Get Their Names?

Yes, there's a serious scientific process for naming viruses. The name that sticks, though, is a different matter.

Chances are you’ve been reading a lot about viruses lately, and in doing so, you may have noticed that a number of them have more than one name—an official scientific name and a popular name. But where do these names come from? Well, the official scientific name of a virus is determined by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, according to BBC Future. Members choose it based on suggestions sent to them by the scientists who are researching a new virus to figure out how to classify it based on its morphology (i.e. its size and shape), its chemical structure, and the way it reproduces. A virus’s popular name, on the other hand, often starts circulating before the official one can be picked, and these names—often linked to the countries or regions where they began—can be contentious and even deeply offensive. Let’s look at some specific cases.

CoV-2

The pandemic currently shuttering the world and peaking in one state after another is a new type of coronavirus—a “novel coronavirus,” as it was called early on—that was originally discovered in Wuhan, China. Scientists eventually named it Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus Two, aka SARS-CoV-2, “[reflecting] research that suggests it is a close relative of the SARS virus” that was first discovered in Asia in 2003, says BBC Future. Confusingly, CoV-2 causes a disease known as coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19. However, the SARS part of the name was dropped due to the fact that it was considered too panic-inducing; that’s how we ended up with just CoV-2. But by then, all sorts of pop names had started to circulate, like the Chinese virus and Wuhan flu, a hat tip to the not-so-old, and arguably racist, days of naming viruses in ways that cause “negative effects on nations, economies, and people,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

H1N1

Like CoV-2, the flu we now know as H1N1 actually has a much longer official name: A/California/04/2009(H1N1). This follows WHO guidelines put forth in 1980 that designate the naming of a virus according to the type of host it infects, the place it originated, its lineage, the year it was isolated, and its protein antigen type—all of which are described by letters and numbers. Here’s the translation: It’s the common Influenza type A, isolated first in California, the 4th virus of its kind to be discovered, in 2009, and its particular proteins are hemagglutinin type 1 and neuraminidase type 1.

This flu is also known popularly as swine flu, as it is similar to viruses that normally occur among pigs. Despite the fact that it was not transmitted to humans when they ate infected pork, this name “posed an issue for pork farmers, who witnessed a decline in sales because of the virus. Several countries, including China, Russia, and Ukraine, even banned pork imports from Mexico, where the virus was suspected of killing more than 150 people,” according to NBC News.

MERS-CoV

The name of this other coronavirus (hence, the official CoV at the end of it) stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. It “has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security at the WHO, said in 2015 in response to that organization’s decision to change its naming standards for viruses. Namely, when viruses are named after a place, this can lead to a backlash against religious and ethnic communities; barriers to travel, commerce and trade; and the unnecessary slaughter of livestock.

Illnesses tend to follow a seasonal pattern, and this is when you’re most likely to catch an infectious disease.

HIV

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) causes a disease known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which currently affects around 1.1 million people in the United States. Horrifyingly enough, when HIV first emerged in the 1980s, it was (wrongly) equated with gay men and named Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease or GRID. Pacific Standard notes that this helped “to spread the slur ‘the gay plague,'” which continued until scientists discovered that it was also infecting heterosexuals and hemophiliacs. Sadly, according to BBC Future, the initial name was not only offensive but also “may have hampered efforts to control it [by Congress]…because it was relegated to being a ‘niche liberal issue.'” HIV/AIDS is one of the diseases that started out as an epidemic and grew into a pandemic.

Avian Flu

Viruses that appear in birds are rarely passed on to humans. There are two types of avian flu that have caused some concern. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of these first appeared in China in 2013 and is called Asian H7N9, which is short for Asian lineage avian influenza A(H7N9)—to recap, Asian for where it originated, A for the type of flu it is, and H7N9 for the types of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins it contains. The other type was first detected in humans in 1997 and has had several resurgences over the years. It’s called Asian highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N1), though you might see “highly pathogenic avian influenza” shortened to HPAI.

Ebola

When this devastating virus first emerged in 1976 in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), it had no name. This changed when it reemerged in 2014 in West Africa. CDC researchers scrounging for an appropriate name for the virus decided they could not in good conscience name it for the small town where it originated, for fear of stigmatizing it. They wanted to name it for the closest river to that town, but another virus named for the Congo already existed (Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus). So, they named it for another river, the Ebola, adding to a long list of viruses named after places of origin—”including West Nile virus discovered in 1937, coxsackievirus discovered in 1948 (Coxsackie is a town in New York), Marburg virus discovered in 1967 (Marburg is a town in Germany), and Hendra virus identified 1994 (Hendra is a suburb of Brisbane, Australia),” according to Live Science.

Norovirus

Again, this stomach flu takes its name from the place where it was first discovered, among a bunch of vomiting school children in Norwalk, Ohio, back in 1968. Norwalk was shortened to Noro. Norovirus is now used “as an umbrella term for the Norwalk virus and its cousins,” according to Stat News. The dreaded stomach bug is also one of the many diseases you can prevent just by washing your hands.

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Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.