Ever wondered how coronaviruses are named and why? CONNECTED speaks to Professor Ben Neuman, Visiting Professor at the University of Reading, and a member of the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses, to find out more.
Many of us don’t spare a thought to the name of a virus, but unknown to the majority, an awful lot of thought goes into these names. Professor Neuman, who sits on the committee responsible for naming the virus, knows only too well how huge a responsibility this is.
Choosing a name
So why is it so important to name a virus? Many of us are calling the current virus that is affecting populations around the world, the “coronavirus”, but that is actually the group of viruses this strain belongs to. Professor Neuman explains that a name can make all the difference on how easily scientists can communicate with each other and focus on fighting the pandemic.
“SARS-CoV-2 is the name given to the virus. This succinctly conveys that this new virus is a close relative, in genetic terms, of the original SARS coronavirus, whereas the disease associated with the virus is named COVID-19. This tells you that even though the virus is related to the one that caused SARS, this disease is a little different.
“The point of a name is to give people a way to accurately and specifically refer to a virus, and to understand how it is related to other viruses.”
“The full name of the virus does just that, and using parts of the full name gives us a way to talk about this virus in the most general or most specific terms. For example, Riboviria Nidovirales Cornidovirineae Coronaviridae Coronavirinae Betacoronavirus Sarbecovirus Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus SARS-CoV-2/Hu-1/Human/2019/Wuhan is one specific strain from a specific time and place.”
Getting the name right or wrong can be the difference between the public using unofficial and potentially discriminatory terms. For example, “swine flu” was the popular name for the virus which caused a global flu outbreak in 2009-2010. The usage of this unofficial term led to the culling of pigs in some countries, as people inaccurately believed they were spreading the virus to humans. Professor Neuman explains why it’s important we don’t fall into a similar trap with COVID-19:
“Calling it the ‘China virus’ would be inaccurate and would seem to me to be deliberately inflammatory – something out of a schoolyard bully’s playbook, not a science textbook.”
“The origin story of SARS-related coronaviruses actually goes back much farther than China in 2019. Other members of Sarbecovirus are found in bats across Asia and Africa; Coronaviridae are found in birds, frogs and many land mammals other than humans; and Riboviria exist wherever there is life. Each level of a virus name takes us a step back up the family tree, to a wider and more ancient group of relatives.”
Therefore, coronaviruses belong to a group of viruses that infect animals, from peacocks to whales, as well as humans. They’re named for the bulb-tipped spikes that project from the virus’s surface and give the appearance of a corona surrounding it – the graphic image of COVID-19 that we are so used to seeing across the media. But as Professor Neuman highlights, naming the specific strain of the coronavirus we are currently facing globally is a much longer and intricate process than most would have originally expected.