One of the first questions I received after China announced their epidemic of what at the time was called the “Wuhan Virus” was about how “novel” the virus really was. I had to explain that we use the term “novel” when speaking of strains. For example, the H1N1 strain of influenza that appeared in the north of Mexico and the southwestern United States was novel because that particular strain had not been seen in humans before. It’s the same case with coronavirus. There are several known strains of it, four of them causing disease in humans. This novel strain is new to humans, but it is closely related to all the other coronaviruses out there.
I went looking for the first scientific paper to mention “coronavirus,” which is easy to do given today’s online databases. (This would have taken a couple of days in the time before the internet.) As it turns out, the first mention of coronaviruses dates back to an article in Nature in 1968. In that article, “an informal group of virologists” describe a new group of viruses they have isolated from different animals and from humans:
“They point out that with negative staining, avian infectious bronchitis virus has a characteristic electron microscopic appearance resembling, but distinct from, that of myxoviruses. Particles are more or less rounded in profile; although there is a certain amount of polymorphism, there is also a characteristic “fringe” of projections 200 A long, which are rounded or petal shaped, rather than sharp or pointed, as in the myxoviruses. This appearance, recalling the solar corona, is shared by mouse hepatitis virus and several viruses recently recovered from man, namely strain B814, 229E and several others.”
The article continues:
“In the opinion of the eight virologists these viruses are members of a previously unrecognized group which they suggest should be called the coronaviruses, to recall the characteristic appearance by which these viruses are identified in the electron microscope. These suggestions have been received by members of the Myxovirus Study Group (chairman, Professor A. P. Waterson) under the International Committee for the Nomenclature of Viruzes (ICNV). The suggestions were found acceptable and are now to be considered by the Vertebrate Virus Committee of the ICNV.”
Fifty-one years later, a coronavirus would cause a pandemic that is testing the limits of public health and governments around the world.