Articles and official reports on the new coronavirus are full of terms that most of us don’t use daily. Some of them — Covid-19, for example — were coined only after the virus emerged in China. Our simple glossary aims to unclutter this specialised vocabulary and help you better understand your news feed. Is there a coronavirus-related term that you’d like to see explained but is not on this list? Let us know in the comments section.
You’re probably wondering why this is on the list. Well, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind. First, coronavirus isn’t the name of any one kind of virus. There’s an entire family of coronaviruses — called Coronaviridae — and some of them cause the common cold. What we’re dealing with now is a “novel”, as in new, coronavirus. We didn’t know about it until a couple of months ago, when authorities were trying to understand what was causing a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases in China’s Wuhan city. Second, coronaviruses are named for the crown-like effect created by the spike proteins on their surface. “Corona” means crown in Latin.
Short for Corornavirus Disease 2019, this is the name of the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Notice that it doesn’t tell you where the virus first emerged. That’s not by accident: the World Health Organisation chose a name that would avoid attaching stigma to locations (like China’s Wuhan city) or ethniticies. But is that necessary? You bet. Consider the reports of racism targeting Asians or people of Asian origin in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. [A note on the pronunciation of Covid-19: don’t spell the letters out — say “covid” like a word, followed by the number 19.]
Mortality (or fatality) rate
This is the percentage of infected people who die. We still can’t say with certainty what this number is for the new coronavirus disease, but here are a couple of estimates. On March 3, the World Health Organisation reported a global mortality rate of 3.4%, suggesting the disease is deadlier than the seasonal flu (with a death rate less than 1%). Two past epidemics caused by coronaviruses, MERS and SARS, had much higher mortality rates. (Soon after WHO announced the 3.4 figure, US President Donald Trump raised an eyebrow or two with his “hunch” that it was a “false number”.)
In February, a study of 44,672 confirmed cases in Mainland China said 2.3 per cent had died. But the rate showed significant variation with age. It was 14.8 per cent for the 80+ category, and just 0.2% for the 10-19, 20-29 and 30-39 groups. It was also higher for men (2.8%) than for women (1.7%).
Dictionary definitions of the word “pandemic” focus of two aspects of a disease: the geographical scale of its spread and the number of people infected. Here is Merriam-Webster’s: “Occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” The World Health Organisation simply puts it this way: the “worldwide spread of a new disease”. So, with infections reported in nearly every continent and a case count of over 1,00,000, should we be talking about a coronavirus pandemic? Controversially, the WHO hasn’t yet declared one, but said recently that the disease has “pandemic potential”.
Public Health Emergency of International Concern
On January 30, the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern — an “extraordinary event” posing a “public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease” and potentially needing “a coordinated international response”. This doesn’t happen often: it was only the sixth such declaration made by WHO. When confronted with a PHEIC, a group of experts advises the UN body’s director-general (currently Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia) on measures to be implemented in the disease-hit country and elsewhere.
Short for “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”, this is the name of the new coronavirus. It was announced on February 11. Don’t confuse it with the virus that caused the outbreak of SARS in the early 2000s. “While related, the two viruses are different,” the World Health Organisation explains.