Steve Connor: A virus in search of a name we can agree on

Science Notebook: The problem is that no one had found the virus in pigs
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The new strain of pandemic flu sweeping across the world is causing an epidemic of confusion over what to call the virus. It was originally named "swine flu" because it contains genes found in well known swine-flu viruses, but the problem with this nomenclature is that no one had found the virus in pigs – except for a swineherd in Canada that was probably infected by a farm worker returning from Mexico.

The World Health Organisation, under pressure from the pig industry and religious sensitivities, decided last month to drop the use of "swine flu" completely and go for the rather inelegant "influenza A (H1N1)", which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Meanwhile, the Germans continue to call it 'Schweinegrippe', the French refer to it as 'la Grippe A', the Dutch insist on naming it "Mexican flu" and the Mexicans call it 'la epidemia'.

Previous pandemic flu viruses have been named after the place where the epidemic was perceived to have started. This is why the 1918 pandemic is known as "Spanish flu", even though it later emerged that it hadn't actually started in Spain, and why the 1957 pandemic became known as Asian flu and the 1968 pandemic is referred to as Hong Kong flu.

So the Dutch are probably technically correct to call is Mexican flu, although the Mexican government is not happy with Mexico being linked in history to the first flu pandemic of the 21st century. One possible compromise is to call it North American flu – it was after all in the United States that scientists first identified the virus as a pandemic strain.

'Ida' and claims of hype

The two big beasts of the scientific magazine world, the journals 'Nature' and 'Science', have had fun ridiculing the media hype surrounding "Ida", the 47-million-year old fossil of an extinct primate. The object of their scorn is not so much the TV production company (and the BBC) that oversold Ida's place in the evolution of man, but the open-access journal, PLoS One, that published the findings and gave the story the imprimatur of scientific respectability.

An editorial in Nature this week points out the hyped-up media frenzy often created by television publicity machines can easily cause egg on faces, especially when a scientific journal has relinquished control of when the news of the discovery is announced – which was the case with PLoS One.

"Nature has received occasional offers of papers associated with television documentaries, and the offers usually come with broadcast dates attached," the journal sniffs. "Where the refereeing process might have been compromised, we have always said no to the paper. When the time is tight, there is a risk the broadcast will go out even if any problems uncovered by peer review cause the paper to be delayed or rejected."

A pity in this case no one managed to tone down the unsupported claims that Ida was both the "missing link" and a direct ancestor of man. It sullied an otherwise fascinating scientific story of discovery.