‘A’ is for ‘Asymptomatic’ — a glossary of coronavirus terms

Click to play video: 'Experts answer viewers’ COVID-19 questions, part 4'
Experts answer viewers’ COVID-19 questions, part 4
WATCH: What is the lifespan of the novel coronavirus on surfaces, clothes, or pets? What should pregnant women know? Who should wear a face mask, and who shouldn't? And how does ignoring social distancing put others at risk? Jeff Semple consulted experts to answer more of your coronavirus questions. – Mar 19, 2020

Our politicians, public officials and friends seem to have developed a new language these days, talking about “flattening the curve,” “social distancing” and “zoonotic disease.”

If you need to catch up on the difference between self-isolation and quarantine, we’ve got you covered. Our glossary to coronavirus terms is below.


While “coronavirus” has commonly come to mean the specific virus spreading around the world right now, technically speaking, it is the name of a family of viruses. Some of these cause a common cold, while some of them, like SARS or MERS, are more dangerous.

That’s why you’ll sometimes see references to the “novel coronavirus” or “new coronavirus,” meaning the virus everyone is currently talking about.


COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Symptoms include high fever, shortness of breath and coughing.

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It stands for “coronavirus disease 2019.”

READ MORE: What are coronavirus symptoms? In mild cases, just like the common cold

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This is the technical name for the new coronavirus. Being infected with SARS-CoV-2 can cause COVID-19.

Social distancing

“Social distancing” refers to a number of measures designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, essentially by keeping people away from each other so they don’t pass along the virus.

Click to play video: 'What exactly are ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’?'
What exactly are ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’?

These include things like staying at least two metres away from others, staying inside as much as possible and avoiding large gatherings, and avoiding contact with people who are at a higher risk of severe illness, like the elderly or people with certain chronic health conditions.

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READ MORE: How long can Canadians expect to be social distancing?

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Some people suggest “social distancing” should really be called “physical distancing” as that more accurately describes these actions, which are designed to keep people physically apart.


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Self-isolation could be thought of as a more severe version of social distancing. People who are self-isolating are to stay at home and limit all contact with other people for 14 days, while watching to see if they develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

READ MORE: Coronavirus calls for self-isolation. Here’s how to do it properly

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People who are asked to self-isolate include travellers who have returned from other countries and people who have come into contact with someone who has COVID-19.

Importantly, self-isolation is ultimately up to the individual to carry out. It’s not generally enforced.


In this pandemic, “quarantine” has generally been used to denote a kind of isolation, with people more forcibly kept away from others, according to Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital.

One example would be passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship who were told to remain at a Canadian Forces base for 14 days upon their return to Canada.

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Click to play video: 'Enforcing the recommendations amid the COVID-19 pandemic'
Enforcing the recommendations amid the COVID-19 pandemic

When it comes to self-isolation, there is no one watching you to make sure you obey, he said. If you’re quarantined, you must abide by the rules, which are set out and enforced by government authorities.

Flattening the curve

This is a popular term for the goal of all this social distancing and self-isolation: to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases that happen at the same time.

This is important, officials say, because having too many cases at once can overwhelm the health care system.

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The phrase became popular after a chart demonstrating the concept circulated on social media.

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The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in early March. Loosely, a pandemic means an outbreak of disease in many countries — though there isn’t a specific number or threshold at which something becomes pandemic-worthy.

READ MORE: Coronavirus has officially been declared a pandemic. Now what?

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The term, if used by the WHO, doesn’t have any specific legal meaning and it doesn’t obligate countries to take any actions. The organization said they used it mostly to attract attention and make countries take the threat seriously.


Asymptomatic means without symptoms. The reason it’s being brought up during this outbreak is because many people are worried that people might be able to pass along the virus when they don’t have symptoms or know that they are sick, which would be “asymptomatic transmission.”

So far, there is some evidence that some people might be able to spread the virus before they get symptoms.

However, it’s not thought to be the most common way the virus spreads.

Contact tracing

Contact tracing occurs when officials and medical experts work to find the identities of people who may have been in contact with someone who was ill — and therefore may also become sick.

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Zoonotic disease

Zoonotic diseases are diseases that jump from animals into people.

Some examples include avian flu, rabies and Ebola. COVID-19 is also thought to be a zoonotic disease, most likely originating in bats and possibly passing to humans via an intermediate animal.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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— with files from Maham Abedi, Global News

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