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Naming a Naughty Virus

Researchers with the Coronaviridae Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses today published in Nature Microbiology on the process of naming the new coronavirus at the center of a global outbreak. The virus was named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) due to its close genetic relatedness to viruses in a species prototyped by SARS-CoV.

The researchers note there are currently 39 recognized and 10 tentative coronavirus species, many of which contain dozens or even hundreds of different viruses. The reason why the new virus is not considered to be a new species is because through an analysis comparing genomic data, and specifically looking at variation in conserved proteins involved in virus replication, the new virus clusters with SARS-related coronavirus.

The authors of the paper further note that the reference to SARS in these names acknowledges the evolutionary links — rather than the clinical disease-based relationship — with the founding virus. However, "with respect to novelty, SARS-CoV-2 differs from the two other zoonotic coronaviruses, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, introduced to humans earlier in the twenty-first century," they wrote.

As previously reported, the World Health Organization named the disease caused by the virus COVID-19, and the authors of the Nature Microbiology paper are in favor of that distinction when referring to the viral outbreak and the clinical disease.

As of today, WHO is reporting nearly 90,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 3,000 deaths worldwide.