a virus by any other name

Naming a virus has always been tricky. People want something they can talk about easily, not a long string of letters and numbers. Like saying Red Car rather than reeling off a whole licence plate. Storms do better. They get homey names, like Brendan or Hugh. Accessible, friendly names. The kind of names you can relate to whilst they tear the roof off your shed. But I’m sure even Brendan – mad as he is – would baulk at having a haemorrhagic disease named after him. (Hugh, on the other hand….)

The trouble is, if the name gets left to the media, things quickly get bent out of shape, politically-speaking.

Take Spanish Flu, for example. It wasn’t actually Spanish. It was just that after WWI, most countries suppressed news of the virus because they worried it would damage morale. Spain had been neutral, though, and had a more independent media. In fact, ironically, the Spanish people initially called it French flu, because they thought that’s where it had come from.

It’s not even as easy as naming a virus after a place. The people who live there might object to being associated with a dreadful disease (ask Hugh). This was tried for a while, though. For example, Ebola was named after a nearby river (although it wasn’t actually the NEAREST river; the Congo had already been taken); the Marburg virus was named after Marburg, in Germany, and my favourite (name, not disease) coxsackievirus, commemorating the small town on the Hudson river, upstate New York, where the virologist collected his first fecal specimens. (I  very much doubt there’s a statue in the market square.)

I’m sure virologists get twitchy when they read the news. They’re painfully and pedantically conscious of the tendency to confuse the virus with the general group it comes from, or the disease it causes. In the current pandemic, people talk about coronavirus (which is actually the virus’ family name, covering everything from SARS to the common cold) or Covid-19 (short for coronavirus disease 2019 – 2019 being the year it was identified). The actual name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2 (short for Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2). All of which is a bit much to handle when all you want to say is that you’re feeling a bit Derek.

Those same virologists would probably put the paper down, take a breath, and turn wistfully in the general direction of London – home since 1966 to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. I don’t know what the building looks like (even though I could easily Google it), but I’m guessing it’s a gigantic, green, geodesic dome covered in spikes. Either way, I’m sure it’ll have a good supply of hand sanitizers on the way in and out.

covid19

2 thoughts on “a virus by any other name

  1. A good one, Jim. Here, we call the virus just the shitty thing but we possibly should show a bit more respect. And BTW, Marburg is really pretty town, all medieval with cobblestones and timber framed houses and a castle and stuff. And one of Germany’s oldest universities, dating back to the 16th century.

    The Marburg virus got its name because some workers at a pharma research lab in Marburg were the first victims.

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    1. Thanks Sabine – and apologies for being so flip about Marburg – especially given the tragic events around the outbreak there. It’s one of the hazards of making light of stuff you don’t know enough about! I toned down the text there…
      Hope you & family are keeping well
      Jx

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