What to Name a Virus?

Like naming a child, naming a virus can be a tricky bit of work to satisfy all parties involved. We went down this road before back in 1993 with the hantavirus. First off, “hantavirus” is a great sounding name, with the initial aspiration and the double “ah.” It’s the kind of name that inspired George Lucas. And then there was the way it burst into view. As the story is told at www.hantavirus.net (Is the internet great, or what?): “Americans had no reason to fear the hantavirus until mid-May of 1993, when several healthy young members of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico died within a short period of time.” This sounds like the opening of a Hillerman novel; I think he later used it for one. Add to this that the hantavirus outbreak gave a lot of people just the excuse they needed. “Clean out the shed? Do you want me to get sick and die?”

Some sources say that the ’93 outbreak was initially known as the Four Corners virus. That’s the kind of name that probably got the chambers of commerce of four states up in arms. Precision is good, so as the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report reported the week of January 28, 1994, “Muerto Canyon virus has been proposed as the name for this virus, following standard conventions for naming zoonotic viruses after a nearby geographic feature.” Muerto Canyon virus! Much, much better than, say, Bluewater Creek virus. Apparently, though, that name didn’t sit well with someone because it was changed, and it looks like the virus namers were out of ideas, so that strain of hantavirus is now known to mankind as the Sin Nombre virus. There is an air of defeat about that name, but there is still some punch to it: The Virus Without a Name, a clever, taciturn drifter that can beat anyone in a gunfight.

Here we are again sixteen years later. The pork industry doesn’t like “swine flu virus.” Mexico doesn’t like “Mexican flu virus.” I offer a name that should satisfy everyone: NTNT virus. No Tiene Nombre Tampoco.

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About John Mansfield

Mansfield in the desertA third-generation southern Nevadan, I have lived in exile most of my life in such places as Los Alamos, Baltimore, Los Angeles, the western suburbs of Detroit, and currently the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. I work as a fluid dynamics engineer. I was baptized at age twelve in the font of the Las Vegas Nevada Central Stake Center, and on my nineteenth birthday I received the endowment in the St. George Temple. I served as a missionary mostly in the Patagonia of Argentina from 1985 to 1987. My true calling in the Church seems to be working with Cub Scouts, whom I have served in different capacities in four states most years since 1992. (My oldest boy turned eight in 2004.) I also currently teach Sunday School to the thirteen-year-olds. I hold degrees from two universities named for men who died in the 1870s, the Brigham Young University and the Johns Hopkins University. My wife is Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, who comes from New Mexico's north central mountains and studied molecular biology at the same two schools I attended. We have four sons, whose care and admonition, along with care of my aged father, require much of Elizabeth's time. She currently serves the Church as Mia-Maid advisor, ward music chairman, and choir director, and plays violin whenever she can. One day, I would like to make shoes.

3 thoughts on “What to Name a Virus?

  1. When I was in college, everyone in Logan got the Cache Valley virus, thought it was cool we could be memorialized like that.

  2. In Asia, where I am this week, everybody’s wearing masks to greet the flights from the US. We could call it the “No Name Either But You Still Need a Mask Virus.”

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