Friday, May 8, 2020:

How do viruses get their names? I could ask, who names viruses? But that would be inaccurate. WHO names diseases. According to the less-well-known ICTV or International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses, virologists name viruses and the ICTV names the virus species.

Ernst Ruska’s electron microscope, 1931

Two twentieth-century technologies are required for classification: genetic sequencing and the electron microscope. Genetic sequencing has developed rapidly since it began in the 1970s. The electron microscope was invented by Ernst Ruska at the University of Berlin in 1931.

(I must add here that Ernst (1906-1988) was the son of Julius Ruska (1867-1949), the man who translated al-Razi’s book on alchemy, the subject of my master’s thesis. See https://historysedge.wordpress.com/thesis-al-razis-book-of-secrets/). That’s my plug for today.

But right now I’m interested in the difference between influenza viruses and coronaviruses and why they have the names they do. Let’s start with the flu.

1918 Influenza virus (electron microscope)

The flu is familiar because it’s been making people sick for a long time. The first flu pandemic was in 1580. ICTV (https://talk.ictvonline.org/) wasn’t around yet. The name “influenza” came from the Italian word for “influence.” The illness thought to be influenced by the stars.

Influenzas–about their names:

  1. There are 4 genera and each genus has one species: A, B, C, D.
  2. Influenza A is responsible for all the human flu pandemics.
  3. Influenza A is divided into serotypes ( antigens or what we form antibodies to) based on two surface proteins: hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). Each one has multiple types.
  4. That’s why we have names like H1N1 (“Spanish Flu” in 1918, “Swine Flu” in 2009); H2N2 (“Asian Flu” in 1957); H3N2 (“Hong Kong Flu” in 1968), H5N1 (“Bird Flu” in 2004), and many more.
Avian coronavirus 1975 (electron microscope, colorized)

What about today’s headliner, coronavirus? It’s named for the crown-like spikes on its surface. Corona=crown, we’ve all seen the pictures. Human coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s.

Coronaviruses include:

  1. Four types are common in humans: The alpha coronaviruses 229E and NL63 and the beta coronaviruses OC43 and HKU1. We all get them. They cause the common cold.
  2. Three coronaviruses that used to be in animals but now cause disease in humans are:
    1. MERS-CoV (beta coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome)
    2.  SARS (beta coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome)
    3. SARS-CoV-2 (novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.)

About COVID-19, names and nicknames:

  • The disease is COVID-19, short for coronavirus disease 2019. WHO named it on Feb. 11, 2020.
  • The virus is SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. It is related to the SARS outbreak of 2003, but they call it the COVID-19 virus to avoid confusion. ( I know, I’m shaking my head too).
  • The name of the species of virus is: Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus.

So, coronavirus we hear about all the time is not influenza. Coronavirus is really the name of a large family of viruses, some of which cause colds. We just call the species that is dominating our headlines “coronavirus” because saying, “the virus that causes COVID-19” takes too long.

Or as my granddaughter calls it, “Rona.”

Related Reading:

“EU Officials’ Opinion Piece in Chinese Newspaper Censored on Coronavirus Origin,” NPR, May 8, 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/07/852429723/eu-officials-opinion-piece-in-chinese-newspaper-censored-on-coronavirus-origin

“Why Virus Taxonomy is Important,” Stuart Siddell, Microbiology Society, 13 Feb. 2018.  https://microbiologysociety.org/publication/past-issues/imaging/article/why-virus-taxonomy-is-important.html

“WHO issues best practices for naming new human infectious diseases,” World Health Organization, Media Centre,8 May, 2015. https://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/notes/2015/naming-new-diseases/en/

“A mutated coronavirus strain seems responsible for most of the world’s COVID-19 infections. That doesn’t mean it’s more dangerous than the original.” Business Insider, May 6, 2020. https://news.yahoo.com/mutated-coronavirus-strain-responsible-most-224300528.html

Ruska family website: http://ernst.ruska.de/daten_e/mainframe_e.html

Sources for this article:

Influenza, CDC https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/viruses/types.htm

Influenza definition and origin: Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/influenza-flu-word-history-origin

“Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it, WHO, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance/naming-the-coronavirus-disease-(covid-2019)-and-the-virus-that-causes-it

Coronavirus, CDC https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/types.html

Common Human Coronaviruses, CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/general-information.html

Credits for images:

Electron microscope of Ernst Ruska. Electron microscope photo attribution: J Brew, uploaded on the English-speaking Wikipedia by en:User:Hat’nCoat. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0).

 Influenza virus. Photo Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith Content Providers(s): CDC/ Dr. Terrence Tumpey – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #8160

Coronavirus. From Wikipedia. This file is a derivative work of an image by CDC/ Dr. Fred Murphy; Sylvia Whitfield https://phil.cdc.gov/Details.aspx?pid=15523

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic will be indelibly written on our memories just as the Great Depression or the Battle of Britain left their mark on past generations. It is my intention to journal the events of these days from three perspectives: as a retired medical technologist, a historian (Ph.D., 2014), and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary crisis.

You are on History’s Edge.

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