Coronavirus: Jargon buster and other things you need to know

Coronavirus is all over the news at the moment, but it can be difficult to understand.

There’s a lot of medical language used to describe the illness, and it’s sometimes hard to cut through it because the story is moving so quickly.

With the help of Dr Mike Skinner, who teaches Virology (the study of viruses) at Imperial College London, we’ve broken down the key terms for you, and explained what’s happened until now.

This is what coronaviruses can look like under a microscope

What's happened so far?

What you may know as coronavirus started in Wuhan, a city in the Hubei province of China.

It spread quickly across the country, and from there to many other places places in the world, with Italy being the worst-affected country outside China.

On 30 January, the coronavirus outbreak was declared a global emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

We’ve now got a number of small clusters in the UK, most of which have been traced to people who have come back from the most highly affected areas. A very small number of people here have also died from the disease.

On 11 March, the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. To find out what that and other key terms about the story mean, have a look at our glossary.



  • This acronym stands for the Cabinet Office Briefing Room A and is used to describe the UK’s emergency response committee (the briefing rooms are where they meet, and it tends to be A). The committee changes depending on the issue but will be made up of the Prime Minister and relevant senior ministers and representatives from the army or intelligence services. They get together when there’s a major crisis in the country that requires immediate action.


  • This is the name of the disease that is commonly being referred to as coronavirus, the virus that causes the disease Sars-COV-19. It’s called this because it's regarded as very close relative to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV), which saw an outbreak in 2003.


  • A generic term to describe a large family of viruses that cause illness, ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases like SARS. They often spread from animals to people.


  • A virus that’s present in an area all year round, every year - for example, chicken pox in the UK, or malaria in parts of Africa. The illness will be something that’s deeply embedded in our society and we get routinely, such as the common cold.


  • When a new illness or disease sees an increase in cases, which rises to a peak, and then starts to decrease again - for example, flu in the UK rises in autumn and winter, peaks around this time, then falls again in time for spring.

Incubation period

  • It’s hard to say when a virus has actually infected a person, and it takes a while for it to replicate its cells. The phrase incubation period describes the time from being exposed to a virus to knowing we have it.


  • Our body’s response to viruses. We have two types: our innate immunity kicks in as soon as we’re infected by a virus and it’s the thing that keeps us alive. Then there’s acquired immunity: this takes a week or two to kick in and it’s when you start making antibodies. They will generally clear the virus. Some of the cells that make the antibodies become memory cells and they can last for a long time, so when we come across the virus again we don’t have to wait a couple of weeks - we can make them in two to three days.


  • A sudden occurrence of a disease in an area. Two examples of outbreaks in recent history are Sars (2002-2003) and the H1N1 influenza virus (2009).


  • An epidemic that happens all round the world, at roughly the same time. People travel all over the world bringing viruses and bacteria with them, and if the illness can survive in the new climates its host travels to, this can start a pandemic.

Patient zero

  • The first person infected by a new virus. We might also refer to patient zero to describe, for example, any one of the first people who introduced it into the UK.


  • This is a very old concept, which used to be applied to ships when they came into ports carrying disease. It’s when you’re told to separate yourself from other people and it’s imposed by the authorities as a way of stopping people with the disease coming into contact with those who don’t.

Red zone

  • An area in a country that is under quarantine. It can mean that people are prevented from travelling in and out, and that people may be told to stay indoors.

Self-isolation or self-quarantine

  • A voluntary action of quarantine by the person who’s got the disease. It’s often under advice from various authorities, but it’s not been imposed upon them. This is sometimes to protect family members and other people in your area.


  • A vaccine introduces your body and immune system to a virus or bacteria before you encounter it in the wider world. This teaches your body how to cope with it, so it can fight it if you ever come across it again. It’s our way to take a shortcut to acquired immunity or the memory state. It typically involves injection of what is effectively part of the virus which isn’t dangerous to us, but which can stimulate the immune system to create antibodies.

There are currently no vaccines for human coronaviruses. One is being worked on as we speak but it needs to go through several series of tests before it can be rolled out to the public.


  • Viruses are the most common pieces of biology on the planet. They’re designed to invade the cells in other organisms, and while most of them are harmless, some can make us very unwell.

World Health Organisation

  • A non-governmental organisation based in Geneva which evaluates outbreaks of infectious disease, advises governments around the world on controlling them and also plays a role particularly in vaccination programmes. Notably it played a key role in the eradication of small pox in the late 1970s by vaccination, and two of the three types polio, also by vaccination.

NHS advice

The official NHS advice on how to protect yourself from coronavirus is:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water often and for at least 20 seconds - roughly as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice
  • Always wash your hands when you’ve been in a public place
  • Use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available
  • Don’t cough or sneeze into your hands, do so into a tissue, your sleeve or the crook of your elbow
  • Catch it, bin it, kill it: put used tissues in the bin straight away and wash your hands afterwards
  • Try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell
  • Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean
Coronavirus: Your questions answered
Vaccinations explained
What is DNA?