Covid-19 literature: language matters

SARS-CoV-2 micrograph
SARS-CoV-2 micrograph provided for public use by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Rocky Mountain Laboratories, U.S. National Institutes of Health.

In a wide-ranging review paper, a UF virologist and his interdisciplinary colleagues summarize aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also discuss how the jargon used by researchers from different fields can hinder efforts to solve the COVID-19 pandemic while also frustrating the public.

The article, in press at the Journal of Thoracic Oncology, reviews what is known about related coronaviruses that have spilled over into humans, and potential exposure pathways to humans from bats given that their guano is used as fertilizer, Chinese medicine, and even to bandage injuries.

John Lednicky, a coronavirus expert and an Emerging Pathogens Institute faculty member, and his team note that most literature pertaining to the pandemic uses the term case to refer to anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, whether they develop symptoms or not. This diverges from the traditional use of case in the medical literature to characterize people who develop symptoms and illness due to an infection or the progression of a disease. A similar discussion of mortality dissects how different countries attribute deaths to COVID-19 during the pandemic, and the nuance of died from and died with to determine an accurate death count versus contributing factors.

The team reviews infection and mortality rate calculations, factors that make some people more susceptible to severe outcomes than others, and the state of vaccine research. They conclude by recommending maintenance of mask-wearing and social distancing as the greatest public health strategies to be maintained until better treatment therapies are developed — and more people develop immunity, whether by vaccine or natural infection.

Written by: DeLene Beeland