Coronavirus, immunity, covid-19 and SARS-CoV-2. These are probably four of the most used words since 2020, even if we haven’t always gotten it right. Fernando Navarro, a trained doctor and translator in this discipline for more than thirty years, analyzes the main doubts that have arisen when communicating about the pandemic.
No one can quickly become a virologist or epidemiologist, so it is normal for doubts to arise about the new terms that have arrived in recent months.
Thus, among the hundreds of terminological doubts registered in relation to the new coronavirus that came from China a year ago, these are some of the most frequent:
The virus and the disease
On February 11, 2020, two nomenclature committees met separately: on the one hand, the WHO named coronavirus disease 2019 ( COVID-19 for short ) the new respiratory disease described in Wuhan; on the other, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses decided to call its causal coronavirus severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (abbreviated, SARSCoV‑2 ).
In the field of infectious diseases, it is very common –even among doctors– to confuse infectious diseases with their causative microbes. We see it in phrases such as «the health authorities are investigating an outbreak of salmonella in a tourist hotel» (rather salmonellosis, right?) and «in the blood transfusion material it is necessary to rule out the presence of viruses that are transmitted through the blood, like HIV or hepatitis C” (hepatitis C is not a virus).
As expected, also in this pandemic I have found this type of confusion more frequently than desired: «the number of people infected by covid-19 is growing» (incorrect use of the name of the disease to refer to its causal virus) or «He is admitted to the ICU due to coronavirus» (incorrect use of the name of the virus to refer to the disease caused by it).
COVID-19 or covid-19?
First of all, perhaps we should ask ourselves why we did not dare to coin the abbreviated neologism directly in Spanish: ecov-2019 (from ‘2019 coronavirus disease’) or covi 2019 (from ‘2019 coronavirus’), which They are abbreviations of greater mnemonic value for us and that could have been easily integrated into the linguistic system.
Why don’t we coin the abbreviated neologism in Spanish ecov-2019 (from ‘2019 coronavirus disease’) or covi 2019 (from ‘2019 coronavirus’)? They would have been easily integrated into our linguistic system
Taking the abbreviated English form for granted among us, in short, there are many who write COVID-19 in all capital letters, as in English. Personally, I recommend the covid‑19 lexicalized form , in lower case, also considered valid by the Royal Spanish Academy ( RAE ), and which will most likely be imposed in the long run.
We have a clear precedent in the human immunodeficiency syndrome, described in the early eighties. In English they abbreviated it AIDS , a term that is still the usual form in that language today. In Spanish, on the other hand, we initially wrote SIDA in all capital letters, as in English, but the term quickly became lexicalized, passed into general language, and already in 1992 it entered the dictionary of the RAE as ‘sida’, a common noun in lower case. .
Covid-19: how is it pronounced?
I pronounce ‘covid’ as a high-pitched voice: /kóbíd/ (that is, I make it rhyme with David), but I hear others –increasingly– pronounce it in English: /kóbid/ , flat voice. Since this is a foreign acronym, both pronunciations are justifiable; but those who pronounce it flat should write ‘cóvid’ with an accent (which at the moment is extremely rare and I don’t see anyone doing it that way).
Coronavirus is probably one of the most used words in the last year. / UNED
Him or covid-19?
As an abbreviated form of ‘2019 coronavirus’, it is clear to me that its grammatical gender in Spanish can only be feminine: la covid-19 . I hear many, however, say «covid-19»; perhaps for considering it an anglicism; English is a language that lacks grammatical gender, although most of the crude Anglicisms ending in a consonant enter Spanish with the masculine gender.
As an abbreviated form of ‘2019 coronavirus’, it is evident that its grammatical gender in Spanish can only be feminine: covid-19
But, more likely, because they are confusing the disease with its causal coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2: «I say covid, in the masculine, because it is a virus.» Which is a serious and very dangerous conceptual error in the field of scientific dissemination.
Coronavirus or coronavirus?
Anyone moderately familiar with reading scientific texts in English will have noticed that the suffix al is used much more in English than in Spanish to form specialized adjectives. In the field of infectious diseases, for example, English uses the adjective microbial to express a relationship with microbes in general, while we say ‘microbial’.
If the causative microbe is a bacterium, then English speakers say bacterial ; we, ‘bacterial’. If it is a fungus, the English adjective will be fungal ; in Spanish, ‘fungal’. If it is a protozoan, the English adjective will be protozoal ; in Spanish, ‘protozoario’ or ‘protozoico’. And, similarly, when it comes to a virus, English resorts to the adjective viral where we traditionally say viral : MMR, for example, instead of *triple viral*.
To translate the English adjective coronaviral and express relationship with coronaviruses, I recommend coronavírico in Spanish, which is also the only form currently accepted by the RAE. I am aware, however, that the pressure of English is overwhelming in medicine today, and many Spanish-speaking doctors say and write coronaviral . It is supposed that the RAE should also consider it as good, since since 1992 it has included in its normative dictionary the ‘viral’ variant ―today in predominant use in Spanish― together with the traditional form ‘viral’.
Mortality and lethality
We call mortality the number of deaths registered in a given population and during a given period; and mortality rate , the ratio between the number of deaths in a population during a given period and the total size of said population. Thus, as I write these lines, mortality from covid-19 since the start of the pandemic is slightly higher in Germany (68,118 deaths) than in Spain (67,101 deaths); the mortality rate, on the other hand, is much lower in Germany (≈ 0.82 ‰) than in Spain (≈ 1.43 ‰).
During the first wave of the pandemic, many media outlets even claimed that the covid-19 mortality rate was over 10% in Spain. This is a huge nonsense, not to be confused with the case fatality rate
Nor should the mortality rate be confused with the case fatality rate, that is, the ratio between the number of deaths from a given disease in a given period and the number of diagnosed cases of said pathology in that same period .
During the first wave of the pandemic, many media outlets even claimed that the covid-19 mortality rate was over 10% in Spain (which is a huge nonsense if we take into account that the annual mortality rate in Spain, adding all known diseases, does not reach 1%)).
They obviously meant the case fatality rate. And even then, the news was alarming enough: because the case fatality rate, unlike the mortality rate, depends on the number of diagnosed cases; and, during the first wave, in Spain, most of the cases remained undiagnosed due to the lack of analytical tests and the overflow of the health system. Several recent studies rather point to a covid-19 case fatality rate close to or slightly less than 1%; or, what is the same, more or less of the order of the fatality rate of the seasonal flu.
If I go to a pocket bilingual dictionary, the first translation it gives me for the English herd is usually ‘herd’. It is not nonsense, of course: we call the herd of sheep or goats in Spanish with the same name. But herd can also be any large group of animals that live together, such as a herd of pigs or a herd of wildebeests; and it can also be applied in English to a large number of people, in which case in Spanish we would rather say ‘multitud’, ‘mulchedumbre’, ‘gentío’ or ‘grupo’.
If I were a veterinarian who had to deal with some ovine or caprine epizootic, well yes, maybe I would talk about ‘herd immunity’. But if what I want is to refer to the protection offered to an entire human community by the immunization of a significant part of it, enough to break the chain of contagion, it seems more logical to talk about herd immunity or group immunity , don’t you think?
Fernando A. Navarro is a specialist in clinical pharmacology, but very soon he hung up his stethon and white coat to earn a living as a doctor of words. A medical translator with more than thirty years of experience behind him, since 2006 he has been in charge of the » Language Laboratory » at Diario Médico .