New MERS cases. The MERS coronavirus. Or—if things turn really bad—the MERS pandemic. That's how the world may soon be talking about the new virus that surfaced in the Arabian Peninsula last summer and that has been rattling health experts since. In a move that may end more than 7 months of confusion, an international group of scientists and public health officials will soon recommend that the new virus be called Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
The group plans to publish a paper recommending the new name, says Raoul de Groot, a veterinary virologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who has coordinated the effort. De Groot chairs the Coronavirus Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), which took the initiative to find a new, widely accepted name. The study group has no power to enforce use of the name, however; it will be up to researchers to decide whether to adopt the moniker.
News of the name comes as Saudi Arabia has reported 13 new cases of the virus, including seven deaths, in just the past 5 days. The wave—more than a month after the last reported case, a 73-year-old man from Abu Dhabi who died in Munich on 26 March—has sparked fresh worries that the virus might start spreading between humans and trigger a global outbreak. As of today, the total reported number of cases is 30, including 18 deaths.
Confusion had reigned over the new name since the virus was first reported by Ali Mohamed Zaki, an Egyptian microbiologist who isolated it in June 2012 from a patient at a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he worked at the time. Zaki sent the virus to Ron Fouchier's virology group at Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, which characterized it further in a paper published in m Bio in November. Alexander Gorbalenya, a coronavirologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands and ICTV's vice president, was a co-author, and the group provisionally called the virus HCoV-EMC/2012, short for human coronavirus-Erasmus MC.
The reference to the Dutch lab didn't sit well with Saudi health officials, who said that Zaki lacked authorization to send the virus to Rotterdam in the first place. Still, most researchers have accepted HCoV-EMC as the name to use. Some have dropped the "EMC," however, and called the virus simply HCoV, a name that might cause confusion because there are five other human coronaviruses.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has adopted the more neutral "novel coronavirus"—abbreviated initially as NCoV but more recently as nCoV—a name that by its very nature was not meant to last.
We've seen this before. The Indians are still sulking about NDM-1, the resistance gene first identified in a sample from New Delhi. Even the most dedicated health experts suddenly become defenders of the local brand when something embarrassing breaks out on their turf.
So never mind that the Middle East is already branded as a sorry mess; naming a virus after it will unite even that fractious region in opposition.
The (still) novel coronavirus is only the latest bug that we can analyze right down to its genes even as we grope for something to call the damn thing. I've been dealing for eight years with "bird flu" and "avian flu," "high-path H5N1" and "low-path H5N1." And don't get me going on "swine flu," "swine fever," "pandemic H1N1" and garden varieties of that wretched virus. I don't want to hear about earlier versions of H7; H7N9 is sufficient to blight my life.
We are also dealing with our innate laziness: It's so much trouble, so time-consuming, to spell out an initialism like Enn-See-Oh-Vee rather than snap out an acronym like SARS. And nCoV is a copy editor's nightmare. My esteemed blogging colleague Dr. Ian Mackay prefers HCoV; fine, it's a Human virus, but so are plenty of others.
Between the virologists worried about next year's tourism statistics and the complications inherent in defining various hemagglutinins and neuroaminidases, it looks as if one effect of influenza, even before you catch it, is to make you tongue-tied.
Maybe, as a recovering English major, I'm taking this too seriously. But my own modest proposal is a new term for all influenzas since H5N1 appeared in Hong Kong in 1997: Nyfia. Capitalize the whole thing if you like; you can pronounce it either niff-ee-uh or knife-ee-uh.
Nyfia stands for "Not Yet Found In Antarctica," where the penguins have little access to the media and the human residents don't consider themselves residents with a stake in tourism. So H5N1 could be Nyfia1; pandemic H1N1 could be Nyfia2; H7N9 could be Nyfia3; and this stupid new coronavirus can be Nyfia4. (Hyphens are deleted to make it easier to hashtag these terms.) SARS is already a politically acceptable term and therefore exempt.
If we accept this nomenclature, we can number many new health threats without offending the sensibilities of political leaders or presidents of hoteliers' associations. If the numbers get too big, we can switch to Nyfom (Not Yet Found on Mars).
Then we can get on with trying to keep these stupid viruses from killing people, and talking about it at the same time.