50 COVID-19 terms to know
A year ago, the term COVID-19 meant nothing more than a jumble of letters and numbers. By the spring of 2020, however, COVID-19 began dominating the news cycle. And as states shut down their economies and schools sent students and teachers home, the pandemic consumed more and more TV air time and online media coverage.
When COVID-19 became a global pandemic, news junkies and casual observers alike were inundated with new terms and concepts. If you don’t have a background in public health or epidemiology, these specialized terms can be a bit hard to understand. Confusion is the last thing needed in a public health emergency: If a portion of the community doesn’t fully understand what needs to happen to stop the spread, the consequences could be deadly. To help demystify some of the language related to the pandemic, Stacker used a variety of news reports and public health sources to compile a list of 50 terms that you need to know to understand COVID-19 news.
After the pandemic, you will never think the same way about face masks or hospital beds. Many members of the American public will also embrace a newfound understanding of virus transmission, hand-washing, and proper disinfecting methods from this experience. Whether you already had a rudimentary understanding of medical terms or wouldn’t recognize an N95 face mask if you were handed one, brushing up on these 50 COVID-19 terms to know will undoubtedly help you understand the pandemic a bit better. Read on to find out what a PCR test is, what constitutes herd immunity, what it really means to flatten the curve, and more.
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Perhaps the first concept to understand is a virus. These microscopic organisms can live outside of a host, meaning they can be transmitted on surfaces or by air. One particular virus—SARS-CoV-2—is responsible for the disease known as COVID-19.
[Pictured: This digitally colorized, negative-stained transmission electron microscopic (TEM) image depicts a number of Influenza A virions.]
Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is an illness caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV—importantly, a different coronavirus than the one that causes COVID-19. This virus originated in horseshoe bats, and the infectious disease known as SARS first appeared in humans in 2003. Though there is no vaccine for SARS, no outbreaks have occurred since 2003.
[Pictured: This illustration, created by the CDC, reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses.]
Like SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, is also caused by a coronavirus. The specific virus—MERS-CoV—typically passes from animals to humans, and human-to-human transmission is rare. Most infections occur after contact with dromedary camels and nearly 80% of the worldwide cases were recorded in Saudi Arabia.
[Pictured: Produced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, this highly magnified, digitally colorized scanning electron microscopic image revealed ultrastructural details at the site of interaction of numerous (yellow) MERS-CoV viral particles located on the surface of a (blue) Vero E6 cell.]
The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is known as SARS-CoV-2. While this virus is similar to the coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS, it remains distinct. Research into exactly how the virus operates and infects humans is still ongoing.
[Pictured: Visualization of COVID-19.]
Antibodies play a crucial role in the immune system: The body releases these proteins into the bloodstream when it detects a particular virus or microbe that it deems a threat. Since antibodies develop after a person is exposed to an virus, scientists believe they may offer some protection from the same virus in the future, though it’s unclear to what degree COVID-19 antibodies can protect against future illness.
[Pictured: Computer illustration of influenza viruses coated with antibodies (white); antibodies bind to specific antigens.]
Antigens are proteins on a virus or germ that our immune system labels a threat, triggering an antibody response. Though testing for the presence of antigens can be a useful way to diagnose infectious diseases, scientists have not yet been able to find a unique protein target for COVID-19.
[Pictured: A chimeric antigen receptor molecule (light blue) binds to CD19 molecules (magenta) on a leukemia cell, activating a tyrosinkinase (red). The final result is the apoptosis of the cancer cell.]
Polymerase chain reaction tests, or PCR tests, reveal whether or not a patient currently has a disease such as COVID-19. These tests search for the presence of the virus in the nose, throat, or respiratory tract.
Unlike PCR tests, serology tests, also known as antibody tests, check for the presence of antibodies in the bloodstream to determine whether or not a patient has had an infection in the past. Scientists think antibody tests may eventually determine whether or not a person will have immunity to COVID-19, but don’t yet know the level of antibodies needed to confer immunity.
A false positive is a conclusion that something is true when it actually isn’t. During the current pandemic, anecdotes of false negatives and false positives have popped up in the news, indicating that the PCR tests aren’t perhaps as reliable as scientists might hope.
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