The new Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, known as MERS-CoV, may be deadlier than severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, according to an article published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine. Older infectious diseases carried simpler names like "mumps" and "tuberculosis." Now acronyms predominate. Who's picking these names?
Committees, consortiums and agencies, mostly. The MERS-CoV naming saga is an extreme example of the bureaucratized process by which diseases are now labelled. The virus was isolated in mid-2012 by a scientist in Saudi Arabia and initially carried the name human coronavirus EMC. As doctors around the world began to see new cases and learned about the bug, it picked up more names, including human betacoronavirus 2c England-Qatar, human betacoronavirus 2C Jordan-N3, and betacoronavirus England 1. The lab group that sequenced the virus genome -- and was criticized for trying to patent its findings -- named the pathogen human coronavirus-Erasmus Medical Center (HCoV-EMC), after the group's employer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, hoping for a single name to emerge, initially stuck with novel coronavirus, or nCoV, as a placeholder. On May 15, more than eight months after the virus was isolated, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses announced the name Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus. Although the World Health Organization frowns upon geographic names, fearing they could lead to discrimination, it blessed the choice, which appears to have stuck.