Who comes up with the names for viruses and what can cause a poorly chosen word

Most likely, you’ve recently read a lot about viruses, and may have noticed that some of them have several names — the official scientific and a popular one. But where did these names? Tells Reader’s Digest.

Кто придумывает названия для вирусов и к чему может привести неудачно выбранное слово

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The official scientific name of the virus is determined by the International Committee on taxonomy of viruses. Participants choose it on the basis of proposals sent to them by scientists who are investigating a new virus to figure out how to classify it on the basis of its morphology (i.e. size and shape), its chemical structure and mode of reproduction. On the other hand, the popular name of the virus often starts to circulate before the official, and these names are often associated with countries or regions in which they appeared, can be controversial and even offensive. Let’s look at some specific cases.


The pandemic currently raging in the world, is associated with a new type of coronavirus — “new coronavirus” (novel coronavirus), as it was called at an early stage, which was originally discovered in Wuhan, China. Scientists eventually called it “Severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus-Two” (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus Two), also known as SARS-CoV-2. The name suggests that the coronavirus is a close relative of the SARS virus, first detected in Asia in 2003. CoV-2 causes a disease known as coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19. However, the part of the name SARS was excluded due to the fact that it felt too panicky (in people’s memory is still fresh of the consequences of the SARS epidemic in 2003) — so there was only CoV-2. But by that time began to spread all sorts of popular names, such as Chinese virus, influenza a Wuhan, not too tolerant and have a “negative impact on the country, economy and people,” according to the world health organization (who).


Like CoV-2, influenza, which we now know as H1N1, actually has a longer official name: A/California/04/2009(H1N1). This name corresponds to who guidelines, put forward in 1980, which determine the name of the virus in accordance with the type of host that it infects, place of origin, year of isolation and type of protein antigen — all of which are described by letters and numbers. Here is the explanation: it is common flu type A, first isolated in California, the fourth virus of this type, which was discovered in 2009, and it is special proteins — hemagglutinin type 1 and neuraminidase type 1.

Also, the virus widely known as swine flu, since it is similar to viruses that normally occur in pigs. Despite the fact that the virus is not passed on to people when they eat infected pork that name has created a problem for farmers, who have seen declining sales due to a virus. Some countries, including China, Russia, and Ukraine, have banned imports of pork from Mexico, where the virus is suspected in the deaths of more than 150 people.


The name of this type of coronavirus stands for “middle East respiratory syndrome.” He “has had an unintended negative impact stigmatiser specific communities or sectors of the economy,” — said in 2015, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant Director-General for health security at who, in response to the decision of this organization to change the naming Convention for viruses. Namely, the tendency to name the virus after the place: it can lead to negative reactions to religious and ethnic communities, to create barriers to travel, trade, lead to unnecessary slaughter.


The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes the disease known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which currently affects about 1.1 million people in the United States. When HIV first appeared in the 1980-ies, it (erroneously) called homosexuality-related immunodeficiency disease, or GRID. Pacific Standard notes that this name helped to spread the so-called “gay plague” as long as scientists have found that the infection also infect heterosexuals and hemophiliacs. The original name was not only offensive, but also “could impede efforts to control them by Congress… because it was called “niche liberal issue.” HIV/AIDS is one of the disease, which began as an epidemic into a pandemic.

Bird flu

Viruses that come from birds are rarely transmitted to humans. There are two types of avian influenza that cause some concern. According to the Center for control and prevention (CDC), one of them first appeared in China in 2013, and is called the Asian H7N9, which is an abbreviation of avian influenza of Asian origin A (H7N9) — AND is a type of flu, H7N9 — types contained in the proteins hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. Another type was first discovered in humans in 1997 and has had several relapses over many years. It’s called the Asian highly pathogenic avian influenza A (H5N1), although you can see that “highly pathogenic avian influenza” reduced to HPAI.

Topic: Everything you wanted to know about the coronavirus, but were afraid to ask: the answers to the who


When this destructive virus first appeared in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1976, he had no name. That changed when he reappeared in 2014 in West Africa. The CDC researchers seeking an appropriate name for the virus, decided that they can’t call it by the name of a small town, where it originated, for fear of stigmatization. They wanted to give it a name nearest to this river city, but there was already another virus is named after Congo (Ebola hemorrhagic fever Crimean-Congo). In the end, it was named after another river, Ebola, adding to the long list of viruses named after the places of origin, including West Nile virus discovered in 1937, Coxsackie virus, discovered in 1948 (Coxsackie is a city in new York), Marburg virus discovered in 1967 (Marburg is a city in Germany), and Hendra virus identified 1994 (Hendra suburb of Brisbane, Australia).


This kind of “stomach” flu got its name from the place where it was first discovered in a group of schoolchildren in Norwalk, Ohio, in 1968. “Norwalk” was shortened to “Noro”. Norovirus is currently being used “as a General term for the Norwalk virus and its relatives”, according to Stat News, and is one of the many diseases that can be prevented by simply washing hands.

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