'MERS' Makes Its Debut in a Scientific Journal

The MERS virus

Rocky Mountain Laboratories, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

A group of coronavirus experts has published its proposal to name a new, deadly virus after the Middle East, the region where it originates. In a short paper published online today by the Journal of Virology, the Coronavirus Study Group (CSG), along with several other scientists, recommends calling the pathogen Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

As ScienceInsider reported last week, the group, part of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, hopes to end confusion about the name of the virus. It was initially called human coronavirus-EMC in a paper by its discoverer, Egyptian microbiologist Ali M. Zaki, and Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in the Netherlands, enlisted by Zaki to help characterize the virus. Since then, a plethora of other names has been used. The paper's authors write:

After careful consideration and broad consultation, the CSG has decided to call the new coronavirus "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus" (MERS-CoV). This name is endorsed by the discoverers of the virus and other researchers that pioneered MERS-CoV studies, by the World Health Organization and by the Saudi Ministry of Health. We strongly recommend the use of this name in scientific and other communications.

Apart from the nine members of the Coronavirus Study Group, the authors include Zaki, Fouchier, Saudi Deputy Minister for Public Health Ziad Memish, Caroline Brown of the World Health Organization's (WHO's) European office in Copenhagen, and Maria Zambon of the U.K. Health Protection Agency, who identified the second known coronavirus case in September.

Geographical names are often controversial because they can be seen as stigmatizing, but CSG chair Raoul de Groot of Utrecht University in the Netherlands says that the reference to the Middle East was eventually acceptable to all. He hopes that the paper will end the debate. "It's good for communication that the field has found a name that is supported by many," De Groot writes in an -email to ScienceInsider. "At the moment, there are more important issues with regard to MERS and MERS-CoV to focus on."

Today, WHO reported two new MERS cases in Saudi Arabia, part of a cluster linked to a hospital in the country's Eastern Province that now numbers 21 cases. Worldwide, there have been 40 confirmed cases, WHO says, including 20 deaths.