- The World Health Organization (WHO) announced in February 2019 an official name for the disease causing the current pandemic.
- The word coronavirus refers to a family of viruses that cause respiratory infections.
- COVID-19 is the official name for the disease behind the current pandemic.
Just last December, people only knew of novel coronavirus as an emerging outbreak. Three months later, the world is in full pandemic mode, buckling down for self-imposed social distancing across the U.S. and around the globe.
At this point, you probably know what symptoms of COVID-19 to look out for (cough, fever, shortness of breath) and how to reduce the spread (wash your hands, practice social distancing, and stay in if you’re sick). So you might even be down a rabbit hole reading up on the origin of the virus…and even the origin of its name.
Read on to learn why the virus is called coronavirus to begin with, what makes it so new or novel, and what COVID-19 actually means, with insight from infectious disease physicians.
Why is it called coronavirus?
Although the name coronavirus caused a bit of confusion at the start of the current health crisis, this virus is in no way related to the beer. Rather, the pathogen got its name due to the spiky crown (or corona in Latin) that you can see on its surface when you take a look at it underneath a microscope, explains Rishi Desai, MD, a former epidemic intelligence service officer in the division of viral diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And there isn’t one sole coronavirus. Coronaviruses are actually a family of viruses that cause respiratory infections, according to the WHO.
“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing.” —Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, director-general of the WHO
While many of the coronaviruses out there don’t give humans too much trouble (some strains are responsible for mild cases of the common cold, for example), other types that initially infect animals can evolve to infect humans with more severe diseases, like Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), says Dr. Desai.The latest coronavirus to make the leap from animals to humans is the one the world is concerned about right now: SARS-CoV2.
You may have also heard the coronavirus on everyone’s radar right now referred to as the new or novel coronavirus—and that’s simply because it’s the latest coronavirus to be discovered in humans, says Natasha Bhuyan, MD, a specialist in infectious diseases and family physician in Phoenix, Arizona. As such, it’s quite literally *new* to us.
And what about COVID-19? What the heck does that mean?
Viruses and the diseases they cause in humans are each given distinct names and abbreviations, even when they’re in the same family. For example, SARS coronavirus in 2003 was referred to as SARS-CoV, per the WHO, and the disease it caused was known simply as SARS.
The new virus is called SARS-CoV2—and COVID-19 is the name for the disease in humans caused by the new virus, says Dr. Bhuyan. (And that’s short for coronavirus disease 2019, the year it was first identified, she adds.) CO stands for corona, VI is for virus, and D is for disease, the CDC says. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, director-general of the WHO, first announced the official name for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus—COVID-19—in early February 2020.
Chances are, though, you’ve heard new coronavirus, novel coronavirus, and COVID-19 all used interchangeably lately—and it’s honestly fine to use any of those in conversation, and your friends and fam will probably understand what you mean. But just remember: The novel/new coronavirus refers to the virus itself, while COVID-19 refers to the disease that it causes in humans.
Why is it necessary to name new viruses and the diseases they cause?
Too often when a health situation like this happens, the illness quickly gets nicknamed based on where it originated or the first animal species or human populations it infects, which can lead to misinformation and xenophobia (not cool). As Ghebreyesus said on Twitter, “having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing.”
The WHO even has best practices for naming new human diseases. The aim of those guidelines is “to minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups,” the organization states.
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