Mar 312020

In times of great fear and anxiety, uncertainty and confusion does not help. It is particularly unhelpful when the confusion is deliberate. I am referring to the widespread practice – particularly by governments and some in the mainstream media – of referring to the CoronaVirus, and to CoronaVirus testing, as “Covid-19” or “Covid-19 testing”.

The Ontario Example

Let us start with an example. In Ontario, Canada, the provincial government posts daily testing figures. Until March 27th, the information included the total number of people tested, the number who tested positive, the number who tested negative, and the number whose test results were still pending. The government also listed all newly-tested individuals (by number) each day, indicating the mode of transmission: “travel”, “close contact”, or “community”. In the few days leading up to March 27th, the mode of transmission for all new cases was identified as either “travel”, “close contact”, or “pending”. In other words: at least for the few days leading up to March 27th, “community” transmission was not listed as the mode of transmission for any of the new cases listed.

On March 27th, the government stopped listing the newly-listed individuals. They stopped telling the public the mode of transmission for each of the newly-tested individuals whose results were known.

On March 30th, the government again changed what it reported. It now provides information about the sex and age range of those tested.

The title of this daily report – at least at this point – is “The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)”. That title caught my eye yesterday for one reason. Specifically, the title implies that “COVID-19” is a synonym for “The 2019 Novel Coronavirus”. But it’s not.

The World Health Organization’s Explanation

On a web page titled “Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it”, the WHO explains as follows:

“Official names have been announced for the virus responsible for COVID-19 (previously known as “2019 novel coronavirus”) and the disease it causes. The official names are:

Disease: coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Virus: severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)

Why do the virus and the disease have different names?

Viruses, and the diseases they cause, often have different names. For example, HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. People often know the name of a disease, such as measles, but not the name of the virus that causes it (rubeola).

Keep that in mind as we proceed. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is the thing that is being spread. Covid-19 is the disease that affects some – not all – of the people who become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. When you hear that those with pre-existing conditions and those over the age of 80 are particularly vulnerable, you should understand that to mean that not everyone reacts to infection the same way. Some people become infected with the virus, but do not suffer from the disease (which can include such symptoms as cough, fever, and difficulty breathing). Others develop the Covid-19 disease. Some who develop the Covid-19 disease die. Some of those who die die from Covid-19. Others who suffer from Covid-19 die from other causes.

Because you can be infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus without experiencing symptoms of Covid-19 disease, you can be infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus without knowing it. Indeed, it is suspected that many have been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, have suffered no disease while infected, and are no longer infected with the virus. Without testing for that, we just do not for how many people that is true.

The WHO goes on to explain why, when speaking about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, they do not just refer to it by its actual name:

ICTV announced “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)” as the name of the new virus on 11 February 2020. This name was chosen because the virus is genetically related to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003. While related, the two viruses are different.


From a risk communications perspective, using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003.

For that reason and others, WHO has begun referring to the virus as “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus” when communicating with the public. Neither of these designations are intended as replacements for the official name of the virus as agreed by the ICTV.” (emphasis added)

So, there you have it. The name of the virus – SARS-CoV-2 – has the word “SARS” in it. Using the word “SARS” can create “unnecessary fear” for some people, so the WHO prefers to refer to the disease (Covid-19) that some people suffer as a result of infection by the virus.

Ontario’s Explanation

Now, let us return to the Ontario example. Whereas the WHO refers to the virus as “the virus responsible for COVID-19”, Ontario has dispensed with subtlety and instead decided to just tell everyone that the virus and the disease are the same thing. If you do enough digging, you’ll find this page, on which Public Health Ontario’s Laboratory Service department explains:

“The causative agent for COVID-19 disease is SARS-CoV-2 virus. For the purpose of clear communication, PHO uses the term COVID-19 to refer to both the virus and the disease.”

That last sentence makes no sense at all. If what one is aiming for is “clear communication”, one does not use the same term to refer both to the cause and the effect (i.e., to both the virus and the disease). Clearly, the goal is “unclear” communication. I leave it to the reader to guess why.

Mis-labeling Facilitates Misrepresentation of Meaning of Virus Data

Leave aside the matronizing nature of that decision, however, and consider the effect of the decision on the reporting interpretation of test results. At the top of the table of results, Ontario places the title “Summary of cases of COVID-19”. The problem is: the data is not a summary of cases of the disease. The test that is being administered is one that checks for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, not for the presence of the Covid-19 disease. The table is therefore a summary of the results of people tested for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Does this difference matter? It might or it might not, depending upon whether those who are tested are already showing symptoms of the Covid-19 disease. We know how many of those who are tested test positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus (it has been holding pretty steady at about 1.5% of those tested, whose results are not “pending”), and we know how many tested negative (as of March 29, 82.6% of those with test results were found not to be infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus). But we are not being told what percentage of the infected are falling ill with the Covid-19 disease. The virus/disease distinction is an important one, because it is believed that fifty percent (50%) of those who are infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus show no symptoms of having the Covid-19 disease.

Those who are infected should certainly be quarantining themselves until they are no longer infected, so that they minimize the likelihood that they will transmit the virus to others. However, if some of them are not suffering from the Covid-19 disease, Ontario’s summary of “Covid-19” data that is actually SARS-CoV-2 viral infection data falsely inflates the number of infected people who are suffering from Covid-19.

Why does that matter? Because those who are infected with the SARS-CoV-2 do not necessarily need the services of a hospital, whereas those heavily affected by the Covid-19 disease might. By presenting us with virus data, and telling us it is disease data, we are getting an inflated sense of current demand for health services.

There is little doubt that our health services are constantly challenged, and will have a hard time dealing with what is sure to be a large bolus of Covid-19 disease patients. We’re facing a crisis. There’s no need to goose the numbers.

It’s not “clear communication”. It’s misinformation. We deserve better from our communications people.

{Paul McKeever is the leader of the Freedom Party of Ontario, in Canada}

Document Details:

Author: Freedom Party leader, Paul McKeever
Publication date: March 31, 2020
Original publication location: Paul McKeever’s personal blog –
Link to original: