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.
Naming pathogens is a tricky issue. Historically, many infectious disease agents—or the diseases themselves—have been named after the place where they were first found. But increasingly, scientists and public health officials have shied away from that system to avoid stigmatizing a particular country or city. When a serious new type of pneumonia started spreading from Asia in 2003, officials at WHO coined the term severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) to prevent the disease from being named "Chinese flu" or something similar. (As it happened, the name ruffled feathers in Hong Kong anyway, because the city's official name is Hong Kong SAR, for special administrative region—a fact that WHO had overlooked.)
For similar reasons, researchers agree that naming the new virus, a distant cousin of SARS, after Jeddah or Saudi Arabia would not be wise; Fouchier says that's why he named it after his lab instead. MERS refers to a much larger region and does not single out any country, says De Groot: "I don't think it needs to be stigmatizing." Infections with the new virus have so far been found in residents of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. There has also been a cluster of three patients in the United Kingdom, the first one of which is believed to have contracted the virus during a trip to Saudi Arabia.
De Groot says that the group has spent a great deal of effort to find a name that all parties involved could agree on. A representative of the Saudi Ministry of Health will be one of the signatories to the statement; WHO has been consulted and agrees with the new name as well, he says. (A spokesperson for WHO did not immediately respond to a request for comment today.)
The new name is only a recommendation—one which the study group hopes will be adopted widely but which it has no power to enforce, Gorbalenya says. That's because ICTV has the authority only to classify and name entire virus species. MERS-CoV does not appear to be a species by itself, Gorbalenya says; researchers have found genetic evidence of bat coronaviruses that are likely to end up in the same species. (Similarly, a species called human betacoronavirus 1 contains both OC43, a human common cold virus, and a bovine coronavirus.) The coronavirus study group will later propose a name for the species, which may be different from MERS-CoV.