Covid-19 Vocabulary: What Do Key Terms Like Variants, Mutation Mean?

COVID-19 vocabulary

Covid-19 updated our dictionary with words like quarantine, isolation, social distancing, mutation, variant, strain, and so many more such words. With more than a year into the pandemic, you must have understood what most of these words mean. However, the latest words that entered the COVID-19 vocabulary like strain, variant, etc. are still fairly new for us. Understanding the meaning of these terminologies is essential not just because they’ve become a part of our life but also because knowing them in and out can help ward off any unnecessary scare and panic.

Let’s deep-dive into the COVID-19 vocabulary.

1. Antibody: When you contract an infection, your immune system produces certain protective proteins that fight the pathogen and help you recover from the infection. These proteins are called antibodies. Broadly speaking, having antibodies against an infection-causing pathogen provides immunity against future infections.

2. Anosmia: The partial or complete loss of smell is known as anosmia. This inability to smell might be temporary or permanent and can occur due to a range of causes. It is one of the most commonly observed symptoms of COVID-19 infection. Patients usually recover from this symptom gradually.

3. Comorbidities: In general, this term means having two or more health conditions simultaneously. People having any pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension are said to have comorbid conditions or comorbidities.

4. Cytokine storm in COVID-19: Cytokines are hormone-like protective proteins or molecules released by your immune system while fighting a germ or injury. These external stimuli initiate inflammation and work as a messenger that signals the body’s cells about the ongoing infection. Sometimes, the immune system loses control and overreacts to an external stimulus (germ, etc). An abundant amount of cytokines is released that starts destroying healthy cells too. Many people with severe COVID-19 were seen to have developed such hyperimmune responses while fighting COVID-19 disease.

5. Emergency use authorization: In India, a national regulatory authority, CDSCO (Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation), checks whether a vaccine, medicine, etc. is safe for the public, following which they receive the authorization for public use. Generally, this entire testing, checking, and authorizing process takes several years to finish. However, in case of public emergencies such as the ongoing pandemic, the authority can approve the use of medical interventions, including medicines, therapies, vaccines, etc. if there is sufficient evidence of its safety and efficacy [1]. Such approval is called emergency use authorization. In India, as per the New Drugs and Clinical Trials Rules, 2019, such a process is known as accelerated approval process [2].

6. Face covering: Face coverings can be easily made at home from clothes. They are also known as cloth masks and help cover the mouth and nose. Covering your nose and mouth helps protect you and others against the infected droplets that a person produces when he/she talks, coughs, or sneezes. Other than face coverings, you may also use medical masks or valveless anti-pollution masks (masks that don’t have a valve).

7. Hand hygiene: It refers to the act of washing your hands frequently with soap and water or sanitizing them with an alcohol-based hand rub. The SARS-CoV-2 virus can stay active on surfaces for hours. Touching those surfaces and then touching your eyes, nose, and mouth can spread the infection. Practicing hand hygiene before touching your face ensures that your hands are free of the virus. Along with maintaining hand hygiene, you must also wear a face mask and practice social distancing to stay safe from the virus.

8. Infodemic: It’s a blend of two words: information and epidemic. It refers to the spread of false and inauthentic information that may lead to anxiety and panic among people. This is not a new term but its prevalence soared during the pandemic when random, fake WhatsApp messages, social media forwards around COVID-19, new symptoms, magic remedies, vaccines, and more started making rounds. This made it hard for people to differentiate between rumors and facts. Since myths are always around us, make sure to check for facts from authentic sources like MoHFW and WHO.

9. Mutation: The word mutation sounds scary, but actually viruses undergo mutations naturally and constantly, especially the ones that have RNA as genetic material like coronavirus. All viruses contain either RNA or DNA. These genetic materials are protected with a covering of protein. When the virus enters your body, it attaches itself to one of your cells and starts replicating itself. From time to time, there’s an error in this replication process. This is called a mutation. Usually, these mutations are minor and can even weaken the virus. But, sometimes, the mutation may make it easier for the virus to replicate and spread.

10. Vaccine: It is a biological product that helps your body develop immunity against a particular germ without developing any sickness. They are the safest way to protect the population against infectious diseases. Vaccines are of many types and are usually given through injections, but some vaccines may be given by the nose or mouth.

11. Variant: As per CDC, a new virus variant has one or more mutations that differentiate it from the parent-type or predominant virus already circulating among the general population.

Is there a difference between a variant and a strain?

The term strain is only appropriate when referring to the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2, the preexisting virus causing the COVID-19 disease) – this strain belongs to the wider coronavirus family, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) viruses. So, SARS-Cov-2 is a single strain, and there are multiple variants of that strain (E484K, N440K, etc). These are variants.

Now that you have updated your COVID-19 vocabulary, don’t forget that the pandemic continues to find ways to spread itself. So, as you move back into the world to continue with your work, make sure to mask up, maintain hand hygiene and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others, even if you have received the vaccine. Not following these guidelines may put you at risk of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

(The article is reviewed by Dr. Swati Mishra, Medical Editor)

Recommended Reads:

COVID-19 Vaccine: Most Commonly Asked Questions Answered

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1. Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines Explained. U.s. Food & Drugs Administration (FDA).

2. Press Briefing on the action taken, preparedness and updates on COVID-19, Dated: 12.01.2021. PIB India.

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