What is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?

This article was last reviewed and updated on July 27, 2021.

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by a coronavirus called 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.

Where did the disease originate?

Coronaviruses are common among 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 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 meat market in Wuhan City, China. Due to the ability of the virus to spread from person to person so easily, it has since been declared a pandemic.

How does COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 is mainly spread:1

  • By inhaling respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes
  • When droplets or particles that contain the virus land on the mouth, nose or eyes when an infected person coughs or sneezes
  • When someone touches their mouth, nose, or eyes with unwashed hands that have the virus on them

You are at highest risk if you are in direct contact or physically close (within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes or more) to someone that has COVID-19.

To protect yourself:

  • Get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you can
  • Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth when you are around people not in your immediate household and in public settings. Masks protect the wearer as well as others they may come in contact with
  • Wash your hands
  • Stay 6 feet apart, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces