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Infectious Diseases

Updated 13 March 2020

What is the difference between Covid-19 and coronavirus?

Are Covid-19 and coronavirus the same thing, or is there a difference between these two names?

What is coronavirus?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines coronaviruses as a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases.

The name comes from the Latin word "corona", which means "crown" or "halo", and refers to the shape of the virus particle when viewed under a microscope.

"Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people," the WHO says.

Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), kidney failure and even death, it adds. 

But what is this Covid-19 being referred to everywhere?

It's the disease caused by a "novel coronavirus" which originated in Wuhan, China.

On February 11 the WHO named the disease Covid-19 – short for Coronavirus Disease.

According to the WHO, the responsibility for naming diseases falls with the organisation itself and "are named to enable discussion on disease prevention, spread, transmissibility, severity and treatment".

What could cause confusion is that viruses and the diseases they cause often have different names. More familiar examples of this would be HIV – the virus, which causes the disease Aids, and rubeola – the virus, that causes measles.

So what is the name of this new coronavirus?

On the same day that the disease was named, the "novel coronavirus" was given a name, by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).

According to the WHO, "there are different processes, and purposes, for naming viruses and diseases.

"Viruses are named based on their genetic structure to facilitate the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines and medicines."

They add that virologists and the wider scientific community do this work, so viruses are named by the ICTV.  

The virus was named "severe acute respiratory coronavirus 2" – or SARS-CoV-2.

The WHO stresses that while the SARS CoV-2 and SARS-Cov (the major outbreak in 2003) are genetically related, they are different. 

So why are we not calling the virus by its name SARS-CoV-2?

The WHO says that "from a risk communications perspective, using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003".

It says it refers to the virus carefully as “the virus responsible for Covid-19” or “the Covid-19 virus” in communications.

But, it stresses, that these terms are not meant to replace the official name.

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