Naming a virus no exact science

Sun Staff

West Nile virus got its name from the district in Uganda where it was first identified. Epstein-Barr virus received its moniker from the researchers who initially described it. Arenavirus was so dubbed for its grainy look: The Latin word "arena" means sand.

The new coronavirus responsible for the worldwide outbreak of SARS has yet to be officially named.

But some researchers have already weighed in. They want to honor Carlo Urbani, the World Health Organization physician who died of the illness and was among the first to identify it.

One suggestion: "Urbani SARS-associated coronavirus."

"At different times, people have used different criteria for naming," said Stephen S. Morse, a Columbia University epidemiologist and editorial board member of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Some viruses are named for places, others for how they appear, still others for the symptoms they produce in patients. Smallpox, for example, leads to many small eruptions on the skin.

Some viruses are assigned only a seemingly nondescript combination of letters and numbers. The strain of influenza referred to commonly as avian flu is technically known as H5N1; the letters refer to its protein makeup.

Numerous disorders are named for the scientists who described them, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

But it's unlikely that the new type of virus responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome will end up being named after Urbani - or anyone else, for that matter. At least not officially.

L. Andrew Ball, president of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, which oversees the classification and naming of viruses, said the committee forbids naming them after people. That's because in most cases, he said, the practice lends itself to self-aggrandizement.

The rules of naming are outlined in the committee's report of 1,000-plus pages, published every few years. Short names without many syllables are preferred. Subscripts, superscripts, hyphens and Greek letters are prohibited. New names should not be similar to existing ones. "Aim for stability," advises Principle 2.1.

Ball, a professor of microbiology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, discovered a virus last year and admits he would have liked to call it the "Andy Ball virus." But he knew better than to try.

He and his colleagues decided to propose the name Providence, in part because it was a fluke that they found it and in part because the cell culture it grew in came from a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist whose office is on Providence Street in Columbia, Mo.

There's an unwritten rule that the person who first describes a virus has the right to name it. But sometimes there are disagreements over who was first.

The naming process generally works like this: Members of ICTV's various workgroups, each of which has a virus specialty, receive proposals from scientists about how a new virus should be classified and what it should be named. After painstaking review, they hammer out a recommendation, which they submit to the executive committee.

"Naming a virus can be a politically and socially sensitive issue if it's a real killer," said Ball.

The executive committee is scheduled to consider about 90 proposals when it meets in St. Louis next month. The names and classifications they accept will later be ratified by the full body of ICTV members.

The process is as slow as it is deliberate. Ball said it will be a stretch to get an official name in place for the SARS virus by the time the next ICTV report is published - in July next year.

"It takes a lot to change it, so you don't want to make mistakes," he explained.

But mistakes happen. A pathogen that was named "lettuce big vein virus" is up for revision. The virus exists, but so, too, does a disease that causes oversized veins in lettuce. However, it turns out the two aren't related.

"Now you're catching on to the fun of virus taxonomy," explained Ball.

No one could seem to agree on what to call the bug responsible for hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which broke out in the American Southwest in 1993. Depending on whom you talked to, it was referred to as Four Corners virus or Muerto Canyon virus, both of which referred to the affected areas.

Both proved offensive to locals, though, so the name was changed to something more neutral: Sin Nombre, which means "no name" in Spanish.

David M. Sander, a virologist who maintains a Web site called "All the Virology on the WWW," said the process can get a little sticky, especially with high-profile viruses.

"You can have several labs reaching the same conclusions but publishing different names simultaneously," he said. "That's when it gets really confusing."

Virologists who sit on the ICTV's coronavirus workgroup have been receiving suggestions on what to call the SARS virus. A previously unrecognized member of that family - named for the corona, or crown, it appears to have under the microscope - has been identified as the infectious agent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta supports the name honoring Urbani, an idea proposed recently in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"We'll put in our vote, but so will lots of other investigators," Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, the CDC director, said last week.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad