The Naming System Behind SARS-CoV-2

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. It is a virus that causes respiratory illness in humans. It passed from animals to humans in a mutated form and was first reported in December 2019 in an outbreak occurring in Wuhan, China.

SARS-CoV-2 Virus

Image Credit: Kateryna Kon/Shutterstock.com

This virus spread rapidly throughout the world, initially facilitated by mass gatherings, passengers on cruise ships, and people in skiing resorts in particular. As of March 2021, it has caused a global pandemic seeing approximately 117 million confirmed cases and 2.6 million deaths worldwide (9 March, 2021).

Who names viruses?

The Coronavirus Study Group (CSG), part of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), was responsible for naming SARS-CoV-2. The CSG is responsible for developing the classification of all viruses and taxa in the coronavirus family.

The ICTV was created after the International Congress of Microbiology in Moscow in 1966. The committee's purpose was to develop a universal taxonomic scheme to categorize and classify all viruses that infect animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, and archaea.

The ICTV is responsible for regulating the Code of Nomenclature, a set of rules and guidelines for naming organisms, and for approving the creation of virus taxa, which are the orders, families, subfamilies, genera, and species of known viruses.

Best practices in naming infectious diseases

Early in the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, the virus was being termed the Chinese virus, the Wuhan virus, or WuFlu. As was the case with the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), designating a particular country, community, or economic sector in the name of a virus can have serious negative impacts on those particular communities and their social and economic welfare.

Asian communities, in particular Chinese communities, experienced greater racial discrimination and negative economic outcomes after the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 as a result of the scientifically inaccurate names Chinese virus and Wuhan virus. These terms were widely and quickly circulated via the internet and social media.

Inaccuracy in disease names can also affect animal welfare. For instance, the H1N1 influenza virus is commonly called swine flu and resulted in the unnecessary slaughter of animals suspected of carrying and spreading the virus when an outbreak of the H1N1 virus began in 2009.

The World Health Organization has set out guidelines for naming new human infectious diseases. These best practice guidelines have been put in place to ensure no unnecessary negative impact caused by the disease name on trade, travel, tourism, or animal welfare.

The guidelines also aim to eliminate any risk of virus names offending any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups. It is also important that the acronyms used for longer virus names (such as HIV and SARS) also do not offend.

The best practices for naming a disease state that the name should include generic terms that describe the symptoms of the disease, such as respiratory disease, and more specific descriptive words when information about risk factors, severity, and seasonality is available. If the particular pathogen that causes the disease has been identified, its name should also be included in the virus name.

Further guidelines state that disease names should not include:

  • Geographic locations
  • People’s names
  • Animal species or classes
  • Names of food
  • References to cultures, populations, industries, or occupations
  • Terms that create fear such as fatal, unknown, or death.

Breaking down the name SARS-CoV-2

Initially, SARS-CoV-2 was called the novel coronavirus. This is because it was a new type of coronavirus that had not been identified before.

These viruses are called coronaviruses because the virus is visually characterized by fringed projections surrounding it, similar to rays and flares of the plasma aura around the sun, known as a solar corona.

The term coronavirus was first used in print in 1968 and was coined by virologists June Almeida and David Tyrrell.

In full, the acronym SARS-CoV-2 stands for:

  • S – severe
  • A – acute
  • R – respiratory
  • S – syndrome
  • Co – corona
  • V – virus
  • 2 – 2

The ICTV announced the name SARS-CoV-2 on 11 February 2020. The term SARS was included in the name because the virus is genetically related to the coronavirus that caused the SARS outbreak in 2003. Despite this genetic link, the viruses are distinct from each other.

There has been controversy over the inclusion of SARS in the name of the virus. Still, as this particular coronavirus is a sister virus to SARS-CoV, it has not been deemed entirely novel and warrants the use of SARS.

The use of SARS in many viruses (such as SARS-CoV-PC4-227 and SARSr-CoV-btKY72) refers to the taxonomic relationship to SARS-CoV, the founding virus in the SARS species, and not their ability to cause SARS-like diseases in those infected.

Although WHO and ICTV collaborated to create the name SARS-CoV-2, WHO does not use this name in their public communication because the term SARS can have negative connotations and consequences for certain populations, particularly in Asia. This is because the initial SARS outbreak in 2003 began in Asia, and there is a risk of racial discrimination because of this geographical association.

Instead of SARS-CoV-2, WHO says, ‘the virus responsible for COVID-19’ or ‘the COVID-19 virus.’

Naming COVID-19

The disease that SARS-CoV-2 causes are called COVID-19. The World Health Organization announced the name for COVID-19 on 11 February 2020.

Broken down, the acronym means:

  • Co – corona
  • Vi – virus
  • D – disease
  • 19 – the year in which the outbreak began.

The virus (SARS-CoV-2) and the disease caused by the virus (COVID-19) have different names because each name serves a different purpose.

Viruses are named based on their genetic structure to aid the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines. Diseases are named to aid discussion on disease prevention, spread, and treatment.

References

Further Reading

Last Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Lois Zoppi

Written by

Lois Zoppi

Lois is a freelance copywriter based in the UK. She graduated from the University of Sussex with a BA in Media Practice, having specialized in screenwriting. She maintains a focus on anxiety disorders and depression and aims to explore other areas of mental health including dissociative disorders such as maladaptive daydreaming.

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