A COVID-19 Glossary
Callum Dinnett compiles and explains a list of scientific jargon to help you get your head around the coronavirus coverage
Between the regular news reports about the pandemic and the daily press briefings in the UK, it isn’t massively surprising that there is still a lot of confusion surrounding this current crisis. While the governmental response, at least in the UK, may be confusing in itself and is perhaps worthy of its own examination, most of the uncertainty seem to centre around the use of specialist scientific terms and jargon, so here’s a bit of a pandemic glossary.
- The obvious term to start with is pandemic:
- At first, cases of COVID-19 were described as an outbreak meaning there was a sudden rise in the incidence of the disease. However, on the 11th March, it was redefined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a pandemic, indicating it was a worldwide phenomenon. It should be noted that this new categorisation was in response to the “alarming levels of spread and severity”.
- Another of the key terms mentioned throughout the pandemic’s coverage is the R number:
- R is a shorthand for reproduction number and represents the average number of people that one person with the virus will pass it onto.
- The R number is calculated by looking at data including positive tests for the virus, hospital admissions, and deaths.
- It’s likely you will have heard of it recently in terms of needing to keep R from rising above 1. Without any lockdown measures, COVID-19’s particular strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) had a modelled R of approximately 3.
- If R rises above 1, the number of cases of the virus increases exponentially, while an R number below 1 means that cases on average are decreasing. In the UK currently, the R number is between 0.7 and 1, though the actual value of R varies across the UK.
- The phrase flattening the curve is also prevalent:
- In instances of outbreaks, the number of infections and associated statistics (from hospital admissions to deaths) measured against time usually takes the shape on a graph of a bell curve, where an initial high infection rate means the number of cases increase significantly until infection rate levels out and starts to decrease.
- Flattening the curve is achieved by reducing the peak number of cases and in turn the total number of cases, even if it spreads cases over a longer period of time. Lockdown measures and social distancing guidelines are put in place to aid in accomplishing this.
- The reason flattening the curve is so important is to prevent overloading emergency services which would happen if there was no action against the disease.
- As you may have inferred, flattening the curve is intrinsically linked with the R number.
- Regularly, the concept of herd immunity is referred to:
- Herd immunity occurs when a group of people are indirectly protected from a contagious disease due to a sufficient amount of the rest of the population being immune.
- In the majority of modern cases, herd immunity is achieved via vaccination of the majority of the population, or by enough of the population catching and surviving the disease.
- At this point, coronavirus vaccine trials are still ongoing, and it is also undetermined whether those who survive the disease are immune to reinfection, so how herd immunity will work for this disease remains uncertain.
- Another term commonly used by medical professionals in explaining the importance of the lockdown is asymptomatic carriers:
- Asymptomatic means without symptoms, so asymptomatic carriers are those who are infected with the disease, but do not show any symptoms.
- For those who catch COVID-19, as with any other illness, symptoms take time to manifest. This period of time is known as the latency or incubation period.
- However, COVID-19 is still infectious even if the infected individual is not presenting with symptoms.
- A term frequently being used to describe the virus is zoonotic:
- This refers to the fact that the virus can be transferred between animals and humans. While how this particular disease transferred to humans hasn’t been officially confirmed by the WHO, it has been suggested that the virus occurs naturally in bats and was passed to humans via an intermediary animal, like the pangolin.
- Finally, to explain a little about the naming of COVID-19:
- This is the WHO’s official designation for the disease and is a shorthand version of Corona Virus Disease 2019, referring to both the cause of the disease and the date of the first recorded cases of infection.
- For those who might be wondering why it has not been given a name referring to a geographic location, the WHO set out their ‘Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases’ in May 2015, which included that disease names may not include geographic locations so as to avoid stigmatisation as much as possible.
- Another important distinction, though more pedantic, is that COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by a specific strain of coronavirus. The name of the virus is also quite technical, though is once again an acronym. SARS-CoV-2 is the official name of the virus, short for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, SARS-CoV-1 being the virus responsible for the 2003 SARS outbreak in Asia.
Hopefully, this list has made a start in clearing up some of the confusion you may have felt about the jargon being used to describe our current predicament.