What's In The Name(s)?
Updated: Jul 21
Go to any large media outlet, and there will be a bevy of articles and information regarding this coronavirus pandemic. However, these articles differ in the names given to and describing the virus. Each name seems interchangeable, and the public can easily be perplexed as to when, where, and how to use each. Take, for example, the New York Times Frequently Asked Questions about the Pandemic: one question asks if asymptomatic transmission for “COVID-19” happens (it does), but the very next question asks about the risk of “catching coronavirus” from a surface. Some scientists and writers also use the more scientific-sounding SARS-CoV-2 to name the virus. What do all these names mean? Are they the same? If not, how do they differ? This guide will explain each term and its significance.
Many outlets describe the Pandemic as being caused by “The Coronavirus.” This claim is misleading, as a coronavirus is part of a family of viruses, known for having protein spikes on their surface, appearing like a crown. There are many coronaviruses, and luckily most result in mild to moderate symptoms similar to the common cold as there is a long history of human exposure to them. Nonetheless, because the viruses can live in humans and animals, outbreaks can start when animals expose humans to new strains. This led to outbreaks such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Outbreak in 2003 and Middle East Respiratory System (MERS) Outbreak in 2012. The current Pandemic is caused by a new coronavirus widely believed to have transferred to its first human host from an animal in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Therefore, the disease causing this Pandemic can be correctly referred to as the “novel” Coronavirus. The disease can also be referred to as Coronavirus Disease 2019 or COVID-19.
Now that we know that the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 can be used interchangeably to describe the disease causing this Pandemic, why do scientists use the term SARS-CoV-2? If the acronym SARS seems familiar, then you’ve been paying attention. The outbreak in 2003 was also called SARS and killed almost 800 people. The outbreak was caused by a virus called SARS-CoV, which is related to, but not the same as the current Pandemic. The full name of SARS-CoV-2 is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (with the 2 acknowledging the 2003 outbreak as the first SARS-CoV virus). This name is not equivalent to saying COVID-19 (or novel Coronavirus). SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. According to the WHO, the difference in the names of the virus and disease caused by the virus is due to the confusion and fear the acronym SARS would lead to in the public after the 2003 outbreak. The term COVID-19 should be used to refer to only the disease, and cannot replace SARS-CoV-2.
As you can see, even the names of the virus and disease it causes are confusing and can change depending on what you are reading. We created CTI to clear up these confusions and make information regarding this Pandemic accessible, easy to understand, and interactive for the public. Now that you can recognize the names discussed in this post, you can now understand how doctors and nurses on the front lines are fighting COVID-19, while researchers at Moderna in Boston are targeting SARS-CoV-2 in their vaccine. Hopefully, as you continue to read the news or watch television programs related to the COVID-19 Pandemic, you can use this post, other posts below, and other sections of the CTI website to understand the truth behind these sources’ claims.