DOUGLAS STEWART February 10, 2020
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s Juliet famously asks. “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” One interpretation of the oft-quoted line is that she was arguing that names do not really matter, what matters is what the thing is. She was suggesting that her family name and the family name of her star-crossed lover Romeo should not be an obstacle to their longing to be together. Juliet might have changed her mind however, had she survived beyond the end of act 3 and gone on to become a virologist. It turns out that names can be very important indeed.
Take your favourite virus. Have you ever considered how it got its name? Some of them are easy, they are a description of who the virus infects and what it does. Take HIV for example, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Just from its name you could infer the species it infects – humans, and what it does when it infects them – causes an immunodeficiency. Simple, no problems there. Then there are other viruses with names that are a little more cryptic. The Herpes viruses, for instance, are named after the Latin word herpein which means “to creep”. They are so named because Herpes viruses can establish latent or reoccurring infections. With a little knowledge of Latin you can infer something about the virus from its name. Again, no particular problem there.
The trouble starts when you look at the convention of naming a new virus after the city, area or geographical feature nearby where the virus is first isolated. Ebola virus is named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo that lies near Yambuku, the site of one of the first outbreaks of the virus. Zika virus takes its name from the Ziika forest in Uganda where the pathogen was first discovered. On the face of it, this makes sense. A place name is a ready, interesting and memorable name to give a newly discovered virus. However, the custom has created a few headaches for scientists, scientific bodies and importantly the people who happen to live in or around the places these viruses are named after.
Hendra virus is a Henipavirus that is carried by flying foxes, it can spread and cause a fatal disease in horses and subsequently humans. It was named by Linfa Wang after the Hendra suburb of Brisbane in Australia, where the stables that the virus was first discovered are located. He named the virus in 1994 and in 2015 it was reported in Science that he was still receiving calls from residents in Hendra who were angry about having a virus named after their sleepy suburb, as it was driving down their property values. Unfortunately, for the people of Hendra, the name of the virus has not changed, but this isn’t always the case.
Sin Nombre virus is an Orthohantavirus that has gone through several names. Originally, it was called the Muerto Canyon Hantavirus after the Canyon del Muerte in the American state of Arizona, which lies near where it was first discovered. Canyon del Muerte is located within a Navajo reservation and the Navajo Nation objected to the name. It was then renamed to Four Corners Virus after the Four Corners point where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet. However, local residents to the Four Corners point also weren’t particularly happy with this name. Eventually, virologists settled on the name Sin Nombre - possibly out of frustration or as a joke. Sin Nombre is Spanish for “Nameless”.
The problems that can be caused by naming viruses after geographical locations are currently playing out in real time with the ongoing outbreak of a novel Coronavirus. The outbreak apparently began in the city of Wuhan, China at the end of last year and has since gone on to infect over 24,000 people in China alone and hundreds of others throughout the world. There has been a huge effort within the scientific community to start solving the problems this new virus presents, with one of these problems being exactly what to call it. It appears to be commonly referred to in the media as the Wuhan virus or the China Coronavirus. Both names may cause concern for individuals from China, as a wave of xenophobia and racism apparently related to a fear of the virus continues to spread along with it. For now, the World Health Organisation has recommended the name 2019-nCoV for the virus. While it isn’t exactly catchy, it’s a start.
Problematic names aren’t restricted to viruses with eponymous geographical names. Take the case of Norovirus. Originally named Norwalk virus after the town in Ohio where an outbreak occurred and that provided the sample the virus was isolated from. In 2002 the International Committee on Taxonomy for Viruses (ICTV) approved the name Norovirus. Subsequently, in 2011, the ICTV encourage scientists and the media to refer to it as Norwalk virus again after receiving a complaint from someone who argued that Norovirus has negative connotations for those with the family name Noro is Japan and other countries where it is common. Perhaps, if Juliet has been a Noro instead of a Capulet she wouldn’t have felt so sure that names were unimportant. After all, a virus by any other name might not be so hurtful to those who happen to live in a place after which that virus is named, or who happen to share the name their name with that virus.