ID Blog: SARS-CoV-2 – What’s in a name?

Coming up with a moniker for the new coronavirus shows the perils of naming names.


There is no Baby Book of Names or hurricane alphabet to readily name diseases and their causal entities. Throughout history and even in the modern era, a host of considerations have intruded on the decision as to what to call these blights upon humanity. Names have varied from inflammatory to misleading, from colloquial to scientific. And when it concerns a new epidemiological entity such as the latest coronavirus outbreak originating in China, health organizations, media, politicians, scientific taxonomy commissions, and the public at large all have a stake in the naming.

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. Courtesy NIAID-RML

From “Wuhan virus” to “novel coronavirus-2019” to “COVID-19 virus,” the name of the new coronavirus that first appeared in China has been evolving to its now official designation: SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2). But where did the final name come from, how does such a name become official, and who makes it so?

Virus taxonomy

The Coronavirus Study Group (CSG) of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) named the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 based upon its genetic relationship to the original SARS-CoV that caused an outbreak of disease in 2002–2003.

According to the ICTV website, the first internationally organized attempts to introduce order into the bewildering variety of viruses took place at the International Congress of Microbiology held in Moscow in 1966 where a committee was created that later became the ICTV and was given the task of developing a single, universal taxonomic scheme for all the viruses infecting animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, and archaea. The ICTV was created as a committee of the virology division of the International Union of Microbiological Societies and is governed by statutes approved by the virology division. Virus classification and nomenclature are subject to rules set out in an International Code.

These designate that: “The universal virus classification system shall employ the hierarchical levels of realm, subrealm, kingdom, subkingdom, phylum, subphylum, class, subclass, order, suborder, family, subfamily, genus, subgenus and species.”

Many of the topmost areas of classification are based on whether the viruses are DNA or RNA, single or double stranded, and have a simple protein shell or a complex lipoprotein envelope. Other levels of classification include host species, type of replication, and type of diseases they cause, the later exemplified in the SARS designation for this virus.

There are 98 international study groups (SGs) covering all major virus orders, families, and genera that are part of the ICTV, and it was the one dedicated to the single-stranded RNA coronaviruses, the CSG, that came up with the SARS-CoV-2 name and first referenced it in their Feb 11 publication in the Cold Springs Harbor preprint journal bioRxiv.

“Based on phylogeny, taxonomy and established practice, the CSG formally recognizes this virus as a sister to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronaviruses (SARS-CoVs) of the species severe acute respiratory syndrome–related coronavirus and designates it as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2),” they wrote.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information Taxonomy Browser, with respect to the original SARS CoV virus, of which this is a relative, the full taxonomic designation is: Viruses, Riboviria, Nidovirales, Cornidovirineae, Coronaviridae, Orthocoronavirinae, Betacoronavirus, Sarbecovirus.


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