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Covid-19: what we know and do not know about the coronavirus

Covid-19: what we know and do not know about the coronavirus

Reports that a woman in Japan has tested positive for the Covid-19 disease for a second time, after seemingly recovering, will alarm scientists and public health experts trying to control the spreading epidemic, and underlines how much we still do not know.

Why do the virus and the disease have different names? 
Viruses, and the diseases they cause, often have different names.  For example, HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

People often know the name of a disease, such as measles, but not the name of the virus that causes it (rubeola).
There are different processes, and purposes, for naming viruses and diseases.

And also

Viruses are named based on their genetic structure to facilitate the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines and medicines. Virologists and the wider scientific community do this work, so viruses are named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).  

Diseases are named to enable discussion on disease prevention, spread, transmissibility, severity and treatment. Human disease preparedness and response is WHO’s role, so diseases are officially named by WHO in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

ICTV announced “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)” as the name of the new virus on 11 February 2020.  This name was chosen because the virus is genetically related to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003.  While related, the two viruses are different.  


WHO announced “COVID-19” as the name of this new disease on 11 February 2020, following guidelines previously developed with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

There are a number of possible explanations for the second positive test of the woman, in her late 40s, a resident of Osaka who worked as a tourbus guide. She first tested positive for coronavirus in late January and was discharged from hospital on 1 February after recovering. She tested negative again on 6 February.

It is possible, say experts, that when the woman was released, she had not cleared the virus. But if so, that means it lingered dormant in her body longer than the 14-day quarantine period. She will have been in contact with more people than have been traced, which poses worrying questions about the length of time people should be isolated after a positive test.

Alternatively, she may have been wrongly diagnosed with Covid-19 the first time round. But nobody is ruling out the possibility of reinfection. 

Once the immune system has fought off viral or bacterial infections, it generally recognises them and can block them the next time they are encountered – but not always and the protection may not last.

There have been reports of a few cases of reinfection in China, but doctors will hope it occurs in just a very few individuals, if at all.

After more than 82,000 cases of Covid-19, the unknowns still outnumber the knowns. Although there is clearly human-to-human transmission, we don’t know whether that happens only through droplets from coughs or sneezes or whether there are other forms of transmission as well.

 There have been reports of airborne transmission in China, although the World Health Organization (WHO) says it is generally not happening.


However, the infection of large numbers of people onboard the Diamond Princess cruise liner, which did not end after people were told to remain in their cabins, still needs explanation. 

Prof David Heymann, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an adviser to the WHO, said there could be faecal or oral transmission as well.

Sewage was implicated in the cluster of Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) cases in the Amoy Gardens apartment block, in Hong Kong, in March 2003, when more than 300 people were infected.

 Sars, also a coronavirus, spread through the building’s plumbing system.

Heymann says the transmissibility of the coronavirus is still uncertain. “It is not know how transmissible this is in the community,” he said. 

All we know for certain is that it can be passed among groups in a small room, such as in families and in the German seminar room where several attendees were infected.

“There have been some cases in China and other places where they have just popped up without the possibility of being able to trace back to a source,” he said. Investigations in Italy are looking for some sort of mass event that could have led to the clusters of cases found in northern cities.

While we know there is asymptomatic transmission from somebody with the new coronavirus who is not ill, we do not know how extensive that is.

 Some people, known as “super-spreaders”, are more efficient transmitters of viruses than others.

What name does WHO use for the virus?

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. 

For that reason and others, WHO has begun referring to the virus as “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus” when communicating with the public. 

 Neither of these designations are intended as replacements for the official name of the virus as agreed by the ICTV.

Material published before the virus was officially named will not be updated unless necessary in order to avoid confusion.

Quick guide

What is the coronavirus and should we be worried?

Guardian Today: the headlines, the analysis, the debate - sent direct to you

The WHO says we still need more information about the severity of the disease. In China, where the vast majority of cases and deaths have so far occurred, we know that 81% of people have had only mild illness. Of the rest, 14% have severe disease, which may become pneumonia, and 5% have critical disease involving breathing problems and organ failure.

The death rate has been estimated at between 2 and 4% in Wuhan, where the epidemic began, but only 0.7% in the rest of China. But we still do not know how many people are not being counted in these statistics, because they suffer only a sore throat and do not go to hospital.

It is clear that those people with damaged or failing immune systems are most at risk. “Older people, and those with pre-existing medical conditions (such as high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes) appear to be more vulnerable,” says the WHO. But we do not know why children, who are very susceptible to some diseases, do not seem to be much affected by Covid-19.


We do not know whether any of the antiviral drugs in existence will help people recover – some, including anti-HIV/Aids drugs, are being given to patients as part of trials in China. We are probably at least 18 months away from knowing whether there can be an effective vaccine against Covid-19.

If you have been affected or have any information, we'd like to hear from you. You can get in touch by filling in the form below, anonymously if you wish or contact us via WhatsApp by clicking here or adding the contact +44(0)7867825056. Only the Guardian can see your contributions and one of our journalists may contact you to discuss further. 

And we don’t know where and how this all began. Scientists understand from the the genetic sequencing of the virus that it came from animals, as did the other problematic coronaviruses, Sars and Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome). Because of a cluster of early cases linked to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which sold and slaughtered live animals for food, most believe the likely source to be wild animals. The similarity of the virus to Sars suggests a bat origin, but there would have been an intermediary animal carrying the virus, which could have been civet cats, bamboo rats or – as one Chinese university 
has claimed – pangolins.

The earliest recorded case of Covid-19 was in someone who had no link to the market, raising questions about this theory, but it is not possible to be sure that patient was the first, not least because of the large proportion of people with mild illness.
As 2020 begins…

… we’re asking readers, like you, to make a new year contribution in support of the Guardian’s open, independent journalism

This has been a turbulent decade across the world – protest, populism, mass migration and the escalating climate crisis. The Guardian has been in every corner of the globe, reporting with tenacity, rigour and authority on the most critical events of our lifetimes

At a time when factual information is both scarcer and more essential than ever, we believe that each of us deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity at its heart.

More people than ever before are reading and supporting our journalism, in more than 180 countries around the world. 

We have upheld our editorial independence in the face of the disintegration of traditional media – with social platforms giving rise to misinformation, the seemingly unstoppable rise of big tech and independent voices being squashed by commercial ownership.

 The Guardian’s independence means we can set our own agenda and voice our own opinions

Our journalism is free from commercial and political bias – never influenced by billionaire owners or shareholders. This makes us different.

 It means we can challenge the powerful without fear and give a voice to those less heard.

None of this would have been attainable without our readers’ generosity – your financial support has meant we can keep investigating, disentangling and interrogating. It has protected our independence, which has never been so critical. We are so grateful.


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