Coronavirus vocabulary

Words I wish I had not had the chance to learn.

First, “coronavirus”. I had heard of colds caused by rhinoviruses, but before December had not registered the idea of a coronavirus as a core of RNA with a lipid shell covered in protein spikes which can penetrate cell membranes. A lipid is not soluble in polar solvents, like water, but soap or alcohol rips the lipid shell apart making the viral particle nonviable. Had you not studied biology or biochemistry, the word “lipid” might have passed you by, as it had me. Each viral particle is eighty nanometres across. The virus is “zoonotic”, an infection originating in other animals. There may be others, far worse, just waiting their chance.

The particular coronavirus is SARS-CoV 2, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, named after SARS, which was not only a syndrome, but a viral disease. A syndrome is a group of symptoms which consistently occur together, and I would say the viral disease should not be called a syndrome because we know the cause, one virus, and because its symptoms are hugely varied, from neurological disorders to “Covid Toe”. The disease is CoViD 19, Coronavirus Disease identified in 2019.

A “cytokine storm” occurs when your immune system, unable to contain the virus, goes apeshit. Much of the damage to your lungs, including the fluids which drown you or the substances which clog your lungs, making them like bricks, comes from your immune system rather than the virus itself. It is caused by the innate immune system, rather than the adaptive immune system which develops as you experience infections. I have read articles about T cells and B cells, but that is too much information, and I have forgotten it, even though I had heard of T cell counts related to AIDS, another syndrome caused by one virus. You can know the practicalities- wear a mask, wash your hands, limit in-person social activity, Trump and Johnson cannot be trusted to make worthwhile decisions about which risks people should take or where public money should go- without knowing about B cells.

How badly you are affected may depend on your initial “viral load”, the amount of virus you take in.

I started this post when I read that a test should be both sensitive and specific. A test is sensitive if it does not have too many false negatives. A test is specific if it does not have too many false positives. The two words together convey more information than “accurate”. Testing your temperature before you enter a building is neither. That reminded me of words I can never remember: the tolerability of a risk depends on its severity, how awful it is if it happens, and its likelihood or probability, producing a risk matrix. I hold the concept of the matrix in my mind, but not the words for its axes.

The new word I liked most was “fomite”. A fomite is an object which passes on infection: it could be a door handle, or a dictionary, any object where the virus may linger, still active, to be picked up by the next person to touch it. A huge variety of objects can be a fomite based on one specific characteristic which I never thought of before The Pandemic started. However I understand fomite transmission is unlikely, and most transmission occurs by breathing in droplets or aerosols- there is, I read, no agreed terminology– breathed out by an infected person.

The word “blog” comes from “weblog”, which was originally meaning a log of interesting pages the author had found. Here’s a page from Raphael Carter’s. Assiduous readers of my blog, who click all my links, will see that I have mostly linked The Atlantic. It’s a bit right-wing for me, and of course US-centric, but I find the range of articles fascinating, and it is at least “reality-based”, pouring scorn on the lies of the Trumpites. Would that everyone were reality-based! Lying and distraction are too profitable.

I depend on journalists. I read that initial research which showed that viral particles could remain on surfaces for days began with huge loads of virus, scores of sneezes per square inch, and the detection was based on finding the RNA, which does not indicate that the virus is infectious. As research continues, the consensus understanding will change. I am not even going to look at “pre-prints”, academic articles not yet peer-reviewed.

What new words have you picked up this year?

6 thoughts on “Coronavirus vocabulary

  1. I learned of one mash-up word today – pandemiquette, which applies mostly to the wearing of masks for the good of others. Then, there is “Covidiot,” which applies to one who does not practice proper pandemiquette. I heard Trump try to call the virus the “Chi-rona” virus. I don’t think he reads your blog, so he probably won’t steal and use another mash-up that I thought of this morning – Pandemocrat, which he might use to blame someone else for his own failures.


  2. It amazes me how so many people use “going viral” as it applies to social media, but they don’t really understand the meaning of viral. These people probably don’t know the meaning of exponential, either, as I often hear it used to simply describe a growth in number. The use of the word essential doesn’t seem to really mean anything at all. Many of those deemed to be essential workers are often considered dispensable. I feel so sorry for the farm workers, who have already had much to overcome.

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  3. Scientists here are researching whether or not a fomite was responsible for the current outbreak in Auckland. They have sequenced the genome of around half of all infections in NZ since the the first one was detected back in February. What’s puzzling is the the genome sequence in the new outbreak is nothing like any of those found previously here, nor is is similar to any of recent arrivals in the country and still in isolation. It’s closely related to a strain from the UK but not seen here before. The first person infected with the new strain works in cold store facilities of a multinational importer, and a theory that is being investigated is that the virus was picked up off frozen goods he handled at work. If that does prove to be the case, then everyone will know about fomites very quickly.

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    • This was the case saying fomite transmission was unlikely:

      “On March 8, South Korean public-health officials learned of a COVID-19-positive patient working in a call center in downtown Seoul. The office was located in one of the densest parts of the city, on the 11th floor of a 19-story mixed-use building with hundreds of offices and apartments. More than 1,000 people worked or lived in the building, sharing several elevators and a lobby. The possibility of mass infection was high.

      “But investigators found that the outbreak was surprisingly concentrated. Of the 97 people in the building who tested positive for the disease, 94 worked on one floor—in the call center. Of those 94, all but a handful worked in one densely packed phone bank. On one side of the floor, the disease was transmitted to two-thirds of employees. But less than 5 percent of the rest of the floor tested positive, as did less than 1 percent of the remainder of the building.”

      With the controls imposed on the virus in New Zealand/Aotearoa, and what you say, fomite transmission sounds possible, but may be much rarer than droplet transmission.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As evidence of fomite transmission has yet to be proven anywhere, I think we can agree that it is much more rare than transmission via droplets, if it occurs at all.

        One obvious question is that if the person who became the seed for the current outbreak did become infected via fomite transmission, why has no one else who handled the same products further down the supply chain become infected? As the the scientists have said, fomite transmission is very unlikely but they won’t rule it out the possibility.

        Liked by 1 person

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