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'Why Is It Called COVID-19?'

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July 13, 2020
From the WebMD Archives

When this coronavirus first starting circulating, most people called it just that: the coronavirus. But as the situation got more serious (and news coverage blew up), we started hearing experts calling it the “novel coronavirus,” and then COVID-19. Why did the name seem to change?

Well, it’s because “COVID-19” and “coronavirus” are actually two different things. One is the name of the disease, and the other is the name of the virus.

To be specific, COVID-19 (which stands for “coronavirus disease 2019”) is the name of the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. When you read reports in the media or hear officials discussing “COVID-19,” they’re referring to the illnesses, not the virus.

The virus itself is named SARS-CoV-2. Each part of the name is an abbreviation:

  • SARS stands for “severe acute respiratory syndrome”
  • CoV stands for “coronavirus”
  • 2 represents the second strain of this type of coronavirus to show up (the first appeared in 2003 and caused the SARS epidemic)

Using this type of naming structure gives scientists the ability to group viruses into families that have similar characteristics. For instance, all “coronaviruses” display a distinctive “crown-like” appearance under the microscope. Grouping viruses into families allows researchers to quickly compare new viruses to existing ones in the same family. This comparison may give researchers knowledge that helps them more quickly develop effective new treatments or vaccines.

When SARS-CoV-2 first appeared, you may have heard it called the “novel coronavirus.” Scientists used this language to distinguish this new (“novel”) type of coronavirus from the first-identified coronavirus, SARS-CoV-1, which, like I said before, caused the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic in 2003.

But back to the name COVID-19.

Because the earliest confirmed cases of COVID date to late 2019, scientists added the “-19” to the end of the name to make it more specific. If, in the future, another new kind of coronavirus emerges and causes a new type of coronavirus disease, it also will be named for the year it’s first identified. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen for centuries to come.



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