Integrated Systems Europe is the biggest audio-video trade show in the world, and this year’s iteration, happening right now in Amsterdam, was going pretty well for Norm Carson. He’s president of a specialty AV gear company in Tempe, Arizona—it makes a nice HDMI cable with lots of adaptor jacks at one end—and the conference seemed fine, if perhaps more sparsely attended than usual. And then, around midday Tuesday, Carson’s phone lit up. Call after call was streaming into his company’s headquarters. Because Carson’s company is called Covid, and as of Tuesday, so is the disease caused by that new coronavirus.
Per the World Health Organization, the unwieldy, serial-number-like moniker 2019-nCoV is no more. The disease that has infected more than 40,000 people around the world and killed more than 1,000 is now officially called Covid-19—CoronaVirus Disease, 2019. And per the Coronavirus Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (in a preprint, so not peer reviewed, but likely to be cleared), the microbe itself is now called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2.
Not much better? Sure, the new designations don’t have the pith of a “SARS” or a “bird flu.” They’re certainly not great for Carson and Covid. “We make high-end wall plates and cables for the commercial market, and we’ve worked really hard to build our brand and build good products,” Carson says. “So any time you’re associated with a worldwide pandemic, I think it’s something to be concerned about.” Indeed; just ask the marketers at AB InBev, makers of Corona beer.
But disease nomenclature doesn’t exist to make things easier on headline writers and Wikipedia editors. The naming of viruses is, to paraphrase the poet T. S. Eliot, a serious matter. How people describe a disease and the people who have it can create or perpetuate dangerous stigmas. Before the taxonomists got ahold of it, AIDS was unofficially called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID—which managed to feed homophobic fears and demagoguery while minimizing that intravenous drug users and people who sought blood transfusions were also vulnerable to the disease. And the fight to discover and name both the virus (which eventually became Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV) and the disease (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) tore apart the international virology community for decades.
Naming hasn’t gotten much easier. In 2015, after a few decades of what came to seem in hindsight like culturally insensitive missteps, the World Health Organization issued a policy statement on how to name emerging infectious diseases. Part of the point was to help scientists generate names before the public does it for them. So there are rules. The names have to be generic, based on science-y things like symptoms or severity—no more places (Spanish Flu), people (Creutzfeld-Jacob disease), or animals (bird flu). As Helen Branswell wrote in Stat in January, Hong Kong residents in 2003 hated the name SARS because they saw in the initialism a specific reference to their city’s status as a Special Administrative Region in China. And leaders of Saudi Arabia didn’t much like it when Dutch researchers called a coronavirus HCoV-KSA1 ten years later—that stands for Human Coronavirus, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Its eventual standardized name, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, still ended up sounding like it was blaming the entire region.
The result of all that rulemaking and political sensitivity is the anodyne Covid-19. “We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference Tuesday. “It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.”
Result: A bummer for Neal Carson’s Covid, as well as fans of crows and ravens—corvids—who read too quickly. (A covid was also a unit of length in 17th-century Macao and China, but that’s probably not operative here.) More grimly, Covid-19 is now a template; that number at the end is an implicit recognition that the world will probably be dealing with higher numbers in the coming decades. Three new human coronaviruses in 17 years presage more of the same.
Giving the virus a different name than the disease helps with that future-nomenclature problem, too. In the past, the only viruses that scientists knew about were those that caused diseases; it made sense to correlate the names. But within the past decade, most of the viruses they’ve discovered don’t have any associated disease. “Now it’s almost exceptional to have a virus discovered due to disease,” says Alexander Gorbalenya, an emeritus virologist at the Leiden University Medical Center and longtime member of the Coronavirus Study Group.
So SARS-CoV-2 is at least a little special. “How much they overlap and inform each other depends on the particular historical circumstances,” Gorbalenya says. “The name of this new virus contains ‘SARS Coronavirus’ because it’s closely related. They belong to the same species.”
That’s a little confusing. In 2003, the disease SARS got a name before the virus that caused it, which scientists subsequently named after the disease: SARS-CoV. The new virus, SARS-CoV-2, is named after that 2003 pathogen, because they’re genetically related.
The name could have gone another way. China’s National Health Commission announced over the weekend that it was going to call the disease Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia, or NCP. And Branswell reported in January that other candidate names were out there—but the acronyms for South East Asia Respiratory Syndrome and Chinese Acute Respiratory Syndrome were just too dumb. “We simply looked at how other viruses are named. And all viruses in this species are named differently, but they all contain—in one way or another way—‘SARS Coronavirus.’ So there was no reason why the new virus should not also be called ‘SARS Coronavirus,’” Gorbalenya says. “That was a very simple logic.” It just happens to have resulted in a somewhat complicated name. But it’s one that’s built to last.