Imprecise: The term “coronavirus” refers to a large and diverse group of viruses, not a single virus.
FULL CLAIM: "coronavirus is not a new virus"
This claim, which states that the “coronavirus is not a new virus”, has been published in numerous viral Facebook posts referencing the outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019 and has been provisionally named 2019-nCoV. These posts cite the existence of patents for completely different strains of coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV, which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and the avian infectious bronchitis virus as proof that 2019-nCoV existed before 2019. In addition, some product labelling on virus-killing disinfectants such as Lysol list “human coronavirus” as one of the microorganisms it kills.
These claims mistakenly assume that 2019-nCoV is the same strain of coronavirus as those that cause SARS or avian infectious bronchitis. In fact, the name “coronavirus” refers to a large and diverse group of viruses which include a group called “human coronaviruses”, none of which have caused the current 2019 outbreak. As the name indicates, human coronaviruses infect humans and some are known to cause severe respiratory illness, such as SARS and MERS, while others cause the common cold. And since 2019-nCoV was only recently discovered, the inclusion of the term “coronavirus” on disinfectant product labeling in no way suggests that such products can combat this virus or that the virus had been previously identified.
Over time, mutations occurring in viruses give rise to new strains of coronaviruses that were not previously identified in humans—the current outbreak that originated in Wuhan has been recognised as a new coronavirus strain by scientists who sequenced its genome[1,2].
The exact source of 2019-nCoV remains unknown. However, given the fact that many animals, such as bats and snakes, host coronaviruses that can be transmitted to humans, and that the 2003 SARS outbreak was linked to civet cats, scientific evidence points to 2019-nCoV as a virus of animal origin. Preliminary work by researchers show that 2019-nCoV has a high degree of genetic similarity with coronaviruses of bat origin[2,3].
In summary, there are many coronaviruses that were identified long before the current outbreak, however this does not preclude new strains from emerging over time due to mutations. Care should be taken not to conflate references to well-known and characterized coronaviruses with references to novel strains.
[Scientific research on 2019-nCoV is ongoing. This review will be updated as new information becomes available.]
- 1 – Zhu et al. (2020) A Novel Coronavirus from Patients with Pneumonia in China, 2019. New England Journal of Medicine.
- 2 – Lu et al. (2020) Genomic characterisation and epidemiology of 2019 novel coronavirus: implications for virus origins and receptor binding. The Lancet.
- 3 – Zhou et al. (2020) Discovery of a novel coronavirus associated with the recent pneumonia outbreak in humans and its potential bat origin. bioRxiv. [Note: This report is a pre-print; readers are cautioned that its findings have not yet undergone peer review or been published in a journal at the time of this review’s publication.]