Zinzin has named a lot of things, but we’ve never named or renamed a virus. Alas, the World Health Organization (WHO) didn’t ping us to rename monkeypox, but it did ask all of us for suggestions, specifically for a new disease name, in an open online forum.
However, when we read a recent news release by WHO titled, “Monkeypox: experts give virus variants new names,” we namers-by-profession couldn’t help but wonder…WHO used what experts? How did they arrive at these names? And what are the new names?
In this post, we will break down WHO’s naming process so far, using their press release (linked above) as our primary reference.
Why does monkeypox need a new name?
WHO explains the reason monkeypox needs a new name in the first place:
The monkeypox virus was named upon first discovery in 1958, before current best practices in naming diseases and viruses were adopted. Similarly for the name of the disease it causes. Major variants were identified by the geographic regions where they were known to circulate.
Current best practice is that newly-identified viruses, related disease, and virus variants should be given names with the aim to avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups, and minimize any negative impact on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare.
Who exactly is involved?
As Zinzin understands it, WHO needs new names in two distinct categories: disease and virus. And there are specific organizations responsible for naming within each.
Responsible for assigning new names to existing diseases:
- WHO, under the International Classification of Diseases
- WHO Family of International Health Related Classifications (WHO-FIC)
- The general public has been invited to submit name-ideas
Responsible for naming of virus species:
- International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV)
- Experts in pox virology, evolutionary biology, public health, and representatives of international research institutes
What has been renamed so far & how?
On August 8, 2022, WHO called an ad hoc meeting for experts in science and public health to reach an agreement about new terminology for existing virus variants, or clades. (A clade is a branch that includes a single common ancestor and all of its descendants.)
How the experts approached consensus
They discussed the characteristics and evolution of monkeypox virus variants, their apparent phylogenetic and clinical differences, and potential consequences for public health and future virological and evolutionary research.
The group reached consensus on new nomenclature for the virus clades that is in line with best practices. They agreed on how the virus clades should be recorded and classified on genome sequence repository sites.
New variant name
Consensus was reached to now refer to the former Congo Basin (Central African) clade as Clade one (I) and the former West African clade as Clade two (II). Additionally, it was agreed that the Clade II consists of two subclades.
The proper naming structure will be represented by a Roman numeral for the clade and a lower-case alphanumeric character for the subclades. Thus, the new naming convention comprises Clade I, Clade IIa and Clade IIb, with the latter referring primarily to the group of variants largely circulating in the 2022 global outbreak.
It sounds like a very large and complicated naming work-in-progress. Specifically, as to next steps, WHO states:
The naming of lineages will be as proposed by scientists as the outbreak evolves. Experts will be reconvened as needed. The new names for the clades should go into effect immediately while work continues on the disease and virus names.
What is Zinzin’s naming-take on all of this?
No hard feelings, WHO
For starters, we freely admit that renaming a virus sounds like a complex and herculean task — one not necessarily well suited for any brand naming agency. However, due to its global and scientific nature and nomenclature, it sounds like it could be a more straightforward naming process than the business of naming companies and products.
Curious to know more about the process
To us, it sounds like WHO gathered an extraordinary group of scientists, biologists and public health experts. Naming by committee is hard, to put it simply. And we can’t help but wonder: was there a naming professional involved or consulted at any point? Was there a need? That might sound naive of us to ask, but Zinzin believes naming itself is an art and a science.
A clade is a clade, unless it’s a subclade
From our view, when naming and renaming companies or products, evocative names win out most every time — names that map metaphorically, rather than literally and linearly, to the brand positioning. Think Apple, Virgin, Amazon, Tesla. But we realize WHO’s team had to go with descriptive names for good reason. We imagine the naming architecture for worldwide virus variants must follow a protocol.
Last, but not least
“Clade” is an interesting word, perhaps even evocative in its own way to the nonscientific community. And we absolutely support sound naming practices that don’t disparage cultures, social and ethnic groups, and animals, among others. The best names uplift and inspire. We encourage everyone to take the opportunity to submit names ideas to replace monkeypox! (See IDC-11, Add Proposals.)
And if you need help, check out Zinzin’s Naming Guide and Manifesto for advice and inspiration. Let us know in the Comments below if you have submitted any names, and what they might be.