The WIRED Coronavirus GlossaryBoone AshworthFeedzy

There’s a lot of noise about the coronavirus out there. As if living through a pandemic wasn’t difficult enough on its own, the rampant spread of misinformation about the virus has only made things murkier. And it’s especially hard to keep the facts straight when you have a strange new vocabulary thrust upon you practically overnight.

That’s why we’ve arranged this list of the key terms of Covid-19. Think of it as the footnotes to all you need to know about the coronavirus.


A virus’s ability to travel through or linger in the air long enough to spread infection. Novel coronavirus particles are thought to be carried via microscopic moisture droplets, in a cough or sneeze, for example. These are not airborne in the traditional sense, as they are believed to fall to the ground after a short distance. Still, scientists do not fully understand all the ways the virus is transmitted, so the exact distance the virus can be transmitted through the air is unknown. Health officials still recommend wearing a mask in public settings and staying at least six feet apart from others.


Not the drinking kind. High concentrations of medical-grade alcohol are used in disinfectants and sanitizing formulas. The CDC says that hand sanitizer mixes must be at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective. Commercial sanitizers are usually made with ethanol, though DIY recipes often substitute 99 percent isopropyl alcohol.


Resistance to the virus produced by the body’s immune system in response to an infection. A blood test to reveal Covid-19 antibodies can indicate if a person has had exposure to the virus, or developed a sufficient resistance to it. In early May, the FDA tightened regulations on how antibody tests are approved in response to concern about ineffective or misleading test results.


A substance used to kill microorganisms and bacteria, typically on the skin. By contrast, a disinfectant is typically used on inanimate objects and surfaces. When in doubt about the difference, be sure to read all product instructions to be sure where it’s safe to spray or slather a particular substance.


Not exhibiting outward symptoms of an illness. There is evidence that the coronavirus can be spread even if a person has no symptoms and doesn’t feel sick.


Used in many DIY disinfecting recipes, to be diluted and used on external surfaces only. Do not ingest.

Blood clots

Clots are congealed clumps of blood that can form inside a vein. If dislodged, a clot can potentially clog blood flow to vital parts of the body, which can lead to seizures or death. Clotting is not typical of a viral infection like Covid-19, but it is not without precedent. Blood clots have affected a small percentage of Covid patients.

Cares Act

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was a $2.2 trillion spending package passed by Congress on March 25, 2020. Meant to stimulate the US economy, it offered financial benefits to individuals, state and local governments, corporations, and small businesses among others. The rollout of those benefits has been more successful for some than others.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the federal US public health agency responsible for–you guessed it–disease control and prevention.

Chloroquine phosphate / Hydroxychloroquine

A drug commonly used to treat Malaria that can also be prescribed for a number of other ailments. Though it had not been thoroughly tested for use against the novel coronavirus, Hydroxychloroquine was touted as a potential remedy by President Trump, Silicon Valley tech bigwigs, and certain media outlets. Hydroxychloroquine use in coronavirus cases has drawn concern from public health officials and has been linked to increased deaths. It is not recommended as a drug to fight coronavirus.

sanitation workers cleaning stairs

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Community Spread

When the virus spreads between people who had no discernable connection to its source. In the early days of the outbreak, this term was used to distinguish cases in which a person became infected with the virus without having traveled to Wuhan. Now that the virus is present across the world, the vast majority of cases are community spread.

Contact Tracing

Coordinated efforts to pinpoint people who have potentially been exposed to Covid-19. This is accomplished by employing dedicated contact tracers to identify people who have potentially come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. Several tech companies have created apps or frameworks to use people’s phones to automatically track contacts, but these efforts have been hampered by privacy concerns.


A family of viruses that predominantly affect animals, but in rare cases can spread to humans.. The viruses can cause respiratory problems, fever, and other issues. The strain of coronavirus that has sparked this global pandemic is Covid-19.


Shorthand for coronavirus disease 2019. Covid-19 is the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. The WHO gave this strain of the novel coronavirus its name in early February. Symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing, coughing, and loss of smell.


An antimicrobial substance that is applied to surfaces or other inanimate objects. Used to clean stuff. Not meant for use on people or animals.


When a virus has spread widely in a local area or region. By contrast, a pandemic indicates global spread.

Essential employee

Which workers count as “essential” varies by region, but in general the term indicates businesses and employees who provide services necessary for society to function during the pandemic. This can include medical staff, emergency response personnel, grocery store workers, and delivery drivers.

Flatten the curve

A term meant to indicate the need to reduce the number of coronavirus cases to manageable levels. The virus spread exponentially, meaning that there was a spike in cases beyond what hospitals and other medical facilities could handle. By following social distancing and shelter-in-place measures, communities have been able to slow that exponential growth and level out the spike. However, cases are still spreading at a constant rate.

Herd Immunity

When the majority of a population is immune or has been inoculated against a strain of virus, and therefore unlikely to spread it the minority of people who are still vulnerable. The actual number varies, but herd immunity has been considered effective when between 70 and 90 percent of the population is immune.


Because this strain of coronavirus is so new, there is no known immunity in humans. In theory, people become resistant to a virus after recovering from an infection or receiving a vaccine. Currently, it is still unknown if Covid-19 survivors are immune to the virus.


Seclusion of an infected person. Not to be confused with quarantine, which is the seclusion of people who may have been in contact with an infected person and need to be monitored until the virus’s incubation period has passed.


A strict version of shelter-in-place, where a governing body mandates that citizens stay in their homes unless they have documentation that allows them outside.


A drug typically taken to help manage diabetes that is being considered as a potential treatment against Covid-19. It has been used to fight influenza and malaria, but has not been proven to work against the coronavirus.

N95 Mask

A disposable face mask that is rated to block out 95 percent of airborne particles while still allowing the wearer to breathe normally. Though people are strongly encouraged to wear masks outside, N95 masks are medical-grade personal protective equipment and should be left to supply hospital and other emergency workers.


“The worldwide spread of a new disease,” according to the WHO. Differs from an epidemic by sheer scale. The WHO declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020.

Plasma Therapy

Transferring the fluid that carries blood through a person’s veins to another patient. When the donor is a recovered Covid-19 patient, their plasma may help an infected person fight back the virus and build up immunities to it.


Personal Protective Equipment, like masks, gloves, and safety glasses, worn by medical workers and others who may come in direct contact with people infected with the virus.


The medical act of turning a patient with severe respiratory problems over so that they lay on their front, in an effort to increase lung capacity.


The seclusion of someone who does not exhibit outward symptoms, but may have come into contact with an infected person, until the virus’s incubation period has passed. Contrast with isolation, which is the separation of people who are known to be infected.


A medicine used to treat Ebola that was approved for use in Covid-19 cases by the FDA in May. Preliminary data indicates that remdesivir may help speed recovery in Covid-19 patients, but the exact nature of its effectiveness is still poorly understood.


Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction. A combination of two techniques for DNA analyzation that are used to test for coronavirus infection.


The strain of coronavirus that causes Covid-19.


The practice of limiting a person’s proximity to others in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

Shelter-In-Place / Stay-At-Home

An order instituted by state and local officials requiring people to stay isolated and inside their homes unless their travel is essential, so as to avoid spreading the virus.


An informal reference to the widespread stay-at-home orders across the country.

Social Distancing

The practice of avoiding contact with people outside the members of one’s own household in order to prevent the spread of the virus. This includes staying at least six feet apart, avoiding large gatherings, and limiting time spent in the same space with others.


People who have been infected with the virus and then spread it to many more people than the average infected person. The exact reasons for this phenomenon are unclear, but one commonality is that super-spreaders tend to come in contact with multiple groups of people during their transmission period.


An appointment with a doctor or therapist that takes place over video conference as opposed to an in-person visit.


Put simply, vaccines are made by injecting the recipient with a small amount of virus. This allows the body’s immune system to recognize the particular strain of virus and build resistance to it. A vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) does not yet exist. Many companies are racing to make a vaccine and some have even moved into the human trial phase. Still, it’s expected to take upwards of a year for a commercial vaccine to be released.


A medical machine used to facilitate the flow of oxygen into a patient’s lungs. Often attached to breathing tubes that go into the body through the nose or mouth. Covid-19 patients with severe respiratory symptoms often require ventilation, though some have resisted the idea.


A meeting of remote participants through a voice and video communication service like Zoom, Skype, or Microsoft Teams.


Working from home.


The World Health Organization is an international public health agency formed by the United Nations in 1948 and currently based in Geneva. The WHO gave Covid-19 its name back in February.


The city in China’s Hubei Province in which the virus is believed to have originated.

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