This page is updated regularly. Last reviewed 09:36 on 2nd November 2020.

What is COVID-19?

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by a coronavirus called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). A coronavirus is a type of virus that causes respiratory tract infections, such as colds and pneumonia. Although coronaviruses usually cause mild symptoms, they can (on rare occasions) cause life-threatening breathing difficulties and death.


What we know so far

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Where did the disease originate?

Coronaviruses are common amongst animals. They’re ‘zoonotic’, meaning that they can be spread between humans and animals.

The reservoir - where microbes such as viruses live and grow - for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 appears to be bats. Research into where the infection started is ongoing, but a major source of the outbreak has been traced to a large seafood and animal market in Wuhan city, China (1).

The majority of people initially infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus had contact with the market in Wuhan city. Due to the ability of the virus to spread from person to person, it has since been declared a pandemic.

See our myth-busting guide

How does COVID-19 spread?

According to the World Health Organization, it appears that the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets and contact routes. This means being in close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 with respiratory symptoms such as coughing and sneezing. Transmission may also be possible indirectly through contact with objects used by an infected person and similarly contaminated surfaces (2).


  1. World Health Organization, 2020. Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Available from:
  2. World Health Organization, 2020. Modes of transmission of virus causing COVID-19: implications for IPC precaution recommendations. Available from:

Watch our video guides

  • How to wash your hands

  • How do you self-isolate?

  • How to look after someone with COVID-19