About Covid-19 and how to stay safe

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What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses belong to a family known as “Coronaviridae,” and under an electron microscope they look like spiked rings. They’re named for these spikes, which form a halo or “crown” (corona is Latin for crown) around the viral body. 

Coronaviruses contain a single strand of RNA (as opposed to DNA, which is double-stranded) within their viral body (or “viral envelope”). As a virus, they can’t reproduce without getting inside living cells and hijacking the machinery within. The spikes on the viral envelope help coronaviruses bind to cells, and then get inside them as if jimmying their way through a locked door. Once inside, they turn the cell into a virus factory — the RNA and a handful of enzymes use the cell’s machinery to produce more viruses, which are then shipped out of the cell and infect other cells. Thus, the cycle starts afresh

Typically, these types of viruses are found in animals ranging from livestock and household pets to wildlife such as bats. Some are responsible for disease, like the common cold. If they make the jump to humans, they can cause fever, respiratory illness and inflammation in the lungs. In immunocompromised individuals, such as the elderly or those with HIV-AIDS, such viruses can cause severe respiratory illness, resulting in pneumonia and even death.

Extremely pathogenic coronaviruses were behind the diseases SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) over the last two decades. These viruses were easily transmitted from human to human but were suspected to have passed through different animal intermediaries: SARS was traced to civet cats and MERS to dromedary camels. SARS, which showed up in the early 2000s, infected more than 8,000 people and resulted in nearly 800 deaths. MERS, which appeared in the early 2010s, infected almost 2,500 people and led to more than 850 deaths.

What is COVID-19?

In the early days of the outbreak, the media, medical experts and health professionals were referring to “the coronavirus” as a catch-all term to discuss the outbreak of illness. But a coronavirus is a type of virus, rather than the virus or the disease it causes. 

To alleviate the confusion and streamline reporting, the WHO has named the new disease COVID-19 (for coronavirus disease 2019)“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing,” said WHO’s Tedros. “It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.”

The Coronavirus Study Group, part of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, was responsible for naming the novel coronavirus itself. The novel coronavirus — the one that causes the disease — is known as SARS-CoV-2. The group “formally recognizes this virus as a sister to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronaviruses (SARS-CoVs),” the species responsible for the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003. 

In the simplest terms: 

  • The novel coronavirus is officially named SARS-CoV-2. 
  • The disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 is officially named COVID-19