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Novel or New Coronavirus?

Novel or New Coronavirus?
Novel or New Coronavirus?
Novel or New Coronavirus?
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This week, we received a question from Thompson in China.


The following words always make me very confused. Could you please tell me, what is the difference between novel coronavirus and new coronavirus, and which one should be official. -- Thompson, China.


Dear Thompson,

Thanks for your question. We suspect you are not alone in your confusion about what to call the virus that is causing so much pain and trouble around the world.

When there is a new viral disease, three groups of experts work to describe it. The World Health Organization, or WHO, decides what to name the disease. Experts in the study of viruses decide what to name the virus. And, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, or ICTV, studies the genetics of the virus to learn how it might be related to other viruses.

COVID-19 is the cause of the current health crisis. CO stands for corona, VI stands for virus and D stands for disease. The WHO added the -19 because 2019 was the year it appeared.

The ICTV found that the virus was related to another virus that caused the SARS disease. That is why they called it SARS-CoV-2. In answer to your question, that is the official name for the virus. It was different enough from any other virus to be called “novel.” Scientists speak of a virus they have not seen before as “novel.”

But “novel” and “new” before the word “coronavirus” mean the exact same thing. The words are interchangeable in this case.


“Novel” and “new” are synonyms, different words that have the same, or very similar meaning, in a single language. Both novel and new can mean something that is unique or original or something not identified earlier. Novel is often used in connection with ideas, as in this Science News headline:

Tackling the novel coronavirus calls for novel ideas.

We often use “novel” to talk about a new way to solve a problem.

Tammy won an award for her novel method of stopping crime.


In both those examples “new” could replace “novel” without a loss of meaning. But novel can not always be used as a substitute for new. New is a more general term.

Let’s say, for example, a woman purchased a piece of art to give to her husband. She might say,

I bought a new painting for Fred.

That means the painting is new to Fred. The painting itself might be old, maybe even made by an artist who died years earlier.

Often new is used to mean "latest." "Novel" would not work in those cases, either. Here’s an example:

The singer has released a new album, but critics say it sounds like all his other recordings.


I put new paper in the printer.

The paper is not novel. Paper has been made in the same method and with the same materials for a long time. “New” is not a necessary word in this example. The speaker just means they refilled the printer with paper.

Thanks again for the question, Thompson. I hope we have helped!

Your questions

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And that's Ask a Teacher for this week.

Im Jill Robbins.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

taxonomy n. the process of describing how different living things are related by putting them in groups

tacklev. to deal with (something difficult)

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