Book:COVID-19 Testing, Reporting, and Information Management in the Laboratory/Overview of COVID-19 and its challenges/COVID-19: The terminology

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1. Overview of COVID-19 and its challenges

Please note: Information during a pandemic changes, sometime rapidly, in regards to test methods, reported figures, and social situations. Efforts will be made to keep this guide up-to-date as best as possible given time constraints and resources.

1.1 COVID-19: The terminology

Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (49640655213).jpg

A pneumonia-like outbreak was fully in process in Wuhan—located in the Hubei province of China—by December 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) was notified by the end of the month that the cause could be a novel threat to the larger populace.[1] By the end of January 2020, the WHO had declared the growing viral threat a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), an act which includes with it a need "to implement a comprehensive risk communication strategy."[2] As the disease progressed beyond its Chinese origins, public confusion slowly grew regarding the terminology surrounding the disease. Leaders at the WHO and the Coronavirus Study Group (CSG) of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses came to different naming conclusions, differing in their naming conventions while adding to the confusion.[3][4] In the end, "COVID-19" has ended up as the common disease name, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is a member of the coronavirus family. Today, however, some still refer to the disease simply as "coronavirus," which is in error.

This isn't the first time a disease has had a different name from its associated virus. One should look back to 1982, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave the name "acquired immune deficiency syndrome" or "AIDS" to the disease associated with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) (a member of the retrovirus family).[5] It took time for the layman to get used to the terminology, and even then some still ended up mistakenly referring to the disease as "HIV."

Consistent terminology is vital to communicating technical material to a global audience.[6][7] With that in mind, it's beneficial to ensure everyone is clear on the terms used. For purposes of this guide:

  • Coronavirus disease 2019 (otherwise known as COVID-19) is the respiratory disease being discussed in this guide.
  • SARS-CoV-2 is the virus responsible for COVID-19.
  • Coronavirus (or Coronaviridae) is a family of related viruses, of which SARS-CoV-2 is a member.
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome (otherwise known as SARS) is a different respiratory disease, which surfaced in the early 2000s, caused by a related but different type of coronavirus (SARS-CoV or SARS-CoV-1).
  • Middle East respiratory syndrome (otherwise known as MERS) is a different respiratory disease, which surfaced in 2012, caused by a related but different type of coronavirus (MERS-CoV).


  1. Hui, D.S.; Azhar, E.I.; Madani, T.A. et al. (2020). "The continuing 2019-nCoV epidemic threat of novel coronaviruses to global health—The latest 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China". International Journal of Infectious Diseases 91: 264–66. doi:10.1016/j.ijid.2020.01.009. PMID 31953166. 
  2. World Health Organization (30 January 2020). "Statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)". World Health Organization. Retrieved 06 September 2021. 
  3. Enserink, M. (12 February 2020). "Update: ‘A bit chaotic.’ Christening of new coronavirus and its disease name create confusion". Science. Retrieved 06 September 2021. 
  4. Jiang, S.; Shi, Z.; Shu, Y. et al. (2020). "A distinct name is needed for the new coronavirus". The Lancet 395 (10228): 949. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30419-0. PMID 32087125. 
  5. Oppenheimer, G.M. (1992). "Chapter 2: Causes, Cases, and Cohorts: The Role of Epidemiology in the Historical Construction of AIDS". In Fee, E.; Fox, D.M.. AIDS: The Making of a Chronic Disease. University of California Press. pp. 49–83. ISBN 0520077784. Retrieved 31 March 2020. 
  6. Kohl, J.R. (2008). The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Trnaslatable Documentation for a Global Market. SAS Institute. ISBN 9781599946573. 
  7. Megathlin, B.A.; Langford, R.S. (1991). "Controlling the Unruly: Terminology". 1991 Proceedings 38th International Technical Communication Conference: WE22–WE24.