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Explainer: No, 'Covid-19' doesn't mean there have been 18 other coronaviruses

The name ‘Covid-19′ comes from the outbreak of the virus in December 2019.

Image: Shutterstock/creativeneko

A SLIGHT CONFUSION about how coronaviruses can be a common family of viruses, and how we have yet to find a treatment and vaccine for the latest strain, has left a misinformation gap in its wake for some people.

Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses, most of which cause limited and mild illnesses. They mostly cause respiratory symptoms such as the common cold, but can cause gastrointestinal symptoms too.

During an interview on RTÉ 2FM today, Minister for Health Simon Harris said that there were 18 other coronaviruses.

When asked about a possible vaccine on 2FM’s Breakfast with Doireann & Eoghan programme (at around 2.02.30ish here), Harris said the following:

“There are some encouraging signs that there’s a number of vaccines – I think about five – now at various stages of trials across the world.

But remember, this is coronavirus Covid-19, that means there has been 18 other coronaviruses and I don’t think they have successfully found a vaccine for any.

“So, we do need to be clear there is a lot of work going on. People are working night and day around the globe to try to find vaccines.”

The editor of the Irish Medical Times Lloyd Mudiwa told Sean Moncrieff of Newstalk last week that ”actually there has been 18 coronaviruses before”.

Harris has since corrected his words, admitting he had made a mistake but the same misinformation is raging more on the other side of the Atlantic. 

In a recent Fox News interview, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said:

This is Covid-19, not Covid-1 folks. So you would think the people charged with World Health Organization facts and figures would be on top of that.

Prominent US broadcaster Rush Limbaugh also claimed on 11 March there were 18 other coronaviruses, in the context that the new coronavirus was “just a common cold” and that strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus were unnecessary:

Why do you think this is Covid-19? This is the 19th coronavirus. They’re not uncommon.

The facts

A novel coronavirus (CoV) is a new strain of coronavirus.

When this latest strain broke out in Wuhan in December 2019, the virus was given the temporary name of “2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease”, with the ‘n’ standing for ‘novel’.

The disease was originally referred to as ‘2019 novel coronavirus’ or ‘2019-nCoV’.

On 11 February, the new coronavirus was then named by the World Health Organization: ’SARS-CoV-2′ is the strain of coronavirus that causes the disease called ‘Covid-19′.

An explanation was given for the disease when it was named: ‘Covid-19′ stands for CoronaVirus Disease 2019.

The WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the time that they wanted to choose a name that “did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease”.

This was so that there wouldn’t be a stigma associated with the virus, by associating it with a country (‘the Spanish flu’ should instead be referred to as ‘The Great Pandemic’) or a name that would create a false impression (swine flu led to the mass slaughtering of pigs in some cases). 


When asked about Harris’ comments at the Department of Health’s briefing tonight, Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan said:

“So Covid-19 is the name of the disease. SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus, just so we’re clear on that. The ’19′ comes from the year in which it arose.”

He said that it was the seventh coronavirus, not the nineteenth. Four of these coronavirus cause common colds, and they have been around for a long period of time, he said. 

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Three coronaviruses can cause potentially severe symptoms, including the latest coronavirus which has caused this pandemic.

The other two potentially severe coronaviruses are SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus), which arose in China in 2002; and MERS (Middle-East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus) which was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

The death rate for those coronaviruses was 9.5% and 34.5% respectively.

Since Conway’s interview referred to above, the reported that a White House official said she was “well aware” that 19 referred to the year and not the number of coronaviruses there had been.

While giving an update on his Twitter page tonight, Simon Harris said that he made “an awful booboo” in his interview this morning.

“I was trying to make the point that there have been lots of viruses in the world so far for which a vaccine hasn’t been found.

“And I was trying to make the point that we can’t just wait for a vaccine – we have to see how we can suppress the virus and to live alongside the virus.

And don’t ask me how or why, I can only presume it’s only a bit of cabin fever, after being in this Department for a very very regular basis for the very last while, maybe a bit of sleep deprivation.

“I stupidly talked about there being 18 other coronaviruses, which of course there isn’t.

“So my apologies for any confusion… my apologies for making a stupid mistake this morning – don’t tell anyone but I am human and it does happen from time to time.”

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