Viral Species, Viral Genomes and HIV Vaccine Design: Is the Rational Design of Biological Complexity a Utopia?

  • Marc H V Van Regenmortel


A common logical confusion is prevalent in the whole of biology, namely that biological species are viewed both as an abstract category in an hierarchical classifcation and as a concrete kind of organism. This is partly due to the fact that the vast majority of living organisms do not have common names that difer from the Latin name of the species to which the organism belongs. However, it is somewhat astonishing that the same confusion exists in virology since every virus has a common name, diferent from the species name to which the virus belongs, which could be used to refer to the infectious viral entity as a concrete material object. The original 1991 ICTV defnition of virus species stated that a virus species is a polythetic class of viruses and thus that a species is a class, namely a conceptual construction of the mind and not a physical, real object located in space and time. This is the reason why it is not possible to develop a vaccine against the HIV species. In 2013, the ICTV redefned a virus species no longer as a class but as a material object consisting of a monophyletic group of viruses that were all physically part of the species. This new defnition is reminiscent of an earlier school of thought known as bionominalism which considered species to be concrete individuals rather than classes. Both bionominalism and the new ICTV defnition are based on the logical fallacy of reifcation which treats abstractions such as classes as if they were concrete physical entities. The implications of this new ontology of virus species for virus taxonomy and for the possibility of incorporating nucleotide metagenomic sequences in the current ICTV classifcation is discussed.


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Conflict of Interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Marc H V Van Regenmortel
    • 1
  1. 1.School of BiotechnologyUniversity of StrasbourgIllkirchFrance

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