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25 virology terms to help you understand outbreaks, from the common cold to COVID-19

  • Airborne transmission

    Infectious particles like viruses can travel on dust or simply be suspended in the air. These particles can settle onto various surfaces, then can stir up and re-suspend in the air. If an uninfected person is exposed to these infectious particles, that person can become infected via airborne transmission. Some people have caught measles by entering a room where people with measles had recently been.

  • Community transmission

    Community transmission occurs when an infectious disease arises in a community in which there is no connection to a known case, and/or no known history of travel into or out of a region with the disease.

  • R0 (reproductive rate)

    The “basic reproduction number” is also known as R0 (“R-nought”), a measure that describes how easily a virus spreads. Specifically, R0 is an estimate of how many other people get infected by one infected person. For example, seasonal flu has an R0 of about 1.3 while the new coronavirus estimates suggest two to three people can be infected by each carrier. Changes to R0 can happen with how often people see others, location, and strength of the efforts to lower spread. Questions remain about the R0 of the new coronavirus, as scientists grapple with the speed of viral transmission worldwide.

  • Epidemic

    An epidemic is defined by Merriam Webster’s dictionary as “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time.” An epidemic is a situation in which a disease is actively spreading.

  • Pandemic

    pandemic results from an epidemic that has grown past geographic boundaries. It is a type of epidemic. It occurs over a wide geographic area and impacts “an exceptionally high proportion of the population”—likely a whole country or the entire world. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization categorized the new coronavirus (COVID-19) as a pandemic.

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  • Antiviral drug

    Antiviral drugs are medications that are used to inhibit viruses and their development. Antibiotics typically destroy the infectious agent, but since viruses are not exactly alive, antiviral drugs are designed to interfere in some way with the virus. Scientists are working around the clock to learn if there are antiviral interventions to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, with new experiments planned and carried out around the world.

  • Vaccine

    Vaccines prevent disease. A vaccine contains the same germ that makes people sick, but it is rendered harmless: Either it’s killed or weakened to the point it does not cause illness. When the vaccine is injected into the body, the immune system responds by making antibodies, leading to the same immunity a person would have if they’d become sick and recovered. When enough people are immune, this protects whole populations because of the diminished chances of an outbreak. Scientists are working furiously to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, and though extremely unusual, testing on human subjects will begin very soon.

  • Common cold

    The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat that causes various symptoms like sore throat, runny nose, headaches, cough, and low fever. Many viruses can lead to the common cold, and most healthy people recover from a cold in six to 10 days.

  • Coronavirus

    The term coronavirus defines a “family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). The novel coronavirus recently discovered has been named SARS-CoV-2 and it causes COVID-19.” Coronaviruses are not the flu.

  • SARS-CoV-2

    The novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19 is known as SARS-CoV-2. Although this new disease may have certain similar symptoms to seasonal flu, It is from a completely different family of virus, and its particular set of traits make it highly contagious and far deadlier. Since it is a new virus to humans, no one is immune. The Centers for Disease Control has an information sheet to help people decide if they might have the new coronavirus, and what to do if they are sick.

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