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The new language of a pandemic

A glossary to help you make sense of the rapidly changing lexicon of the COVID-19 era

By Schuyler Velasco

From “social distancing” to “N95 masks,” COVID-19 has made a slew of once-foreign words and phrases a part of everyday conversation. And as scientists, public health officials, and medical professionals race to combat the virus, more will follow — to describe new medical treatments, scientific discoveries, technologies, and ways of thinking. In addition to serving as a guide through the Experience Pandemic stories published this month, this list will help you make sense of the rapidly changing language of our new reality. Click on a word below to read the story in which it appears.

“10-90” gap
A concept outlining inequities in disease research and drug development. Experts say generally, 90 percent of funds go to diseases that affect about 10 percent of the world’s population.

Adversarial neural networks
A cybersecurity concept that models the effects of people’s bad decisions — like attending a megachurch service or throwing a barbecue in defiance of social distancing orders — on a disease’s projected spread. The “knucklehead factor,” more colloquially.

Affiliation cues
Social behaviors that promote closeness between people. In person, these can include unconscious facial expressions and physical displays of affection. In digital interactions, they can be textual, in the form of typed out laughter or emoticons.

Allbutt’s thermometer
Invented in 1886 by the eponymous English physician, the first thermometer that more-or-less resembles modern devices. It was six inches long and able to discern a steady body temperature in under five minutes. Previous iterations could be several feet long and take 20 minutes to work. 

Antigen
A foreign substance that induces an immune response in the body. Examples include viruses and tumors.

BlueDot
A Canadian artificial intelligence firm that spotted the seeds of the COVID-19 pandemic early, by culling data including local news, livestock health reports, and commercial airline records.

Bloodletting
Draining a patient of blood to cure disease; a common medical practice well into the 19th century.

Bodily humors
The overarching theory guiding medical treatment in the Middle Ages.  It was widely believed that the human body contained four “humors” — blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile — and that keeping them in balance was the key to being healthy.

COVID-19
Coronavirus Disease 2019, the illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. First identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, COVID-19 was named by the World Health Organization in February 2020.

Confirmation bias
The tendency to remember facts that confirm an already-held belief. For example: you’re more likely to remember hearing that “hospitals are busier on full moons” if you happen to be in a busy hospital during a full moon. When the hospital is busy and it isn’t a full moon, you’re less likely to think of it.

GAN (general adversarial network)
An AI program that can synthesize data from a federal health agency or a hospital network without revealing names and numbers of individuals in the database, minimizing some of the privacy concerns that can come with big data collection.

Glycoproteins
Molecules that compose a virus’ outer layer.

Hysteria
A debunked mental disorder commonly diagnosed in women. Symptoms included anxiety, shortness of breath, fainting, and nervousness. 

Immunoinformatics
A field of study that uses computational methods to solve clinical, immunological problems.

Infrared thermal detection systems 
Full-body scanners that can measure body temperature, and sometimes detect fevers, from several meters away.

Lassa virus
An acute, animal-borne illness endemic to West Africa.

Logic Pro
Apple’s sound recording and editing software. It includes, among other things, a track editor and a sound library.

Medical tricorder
A fictional, all-purpose medical tool from the TV series Star Trek, which could check a wide range of vital signs and non-invasively evaluate organ function — in both humans and alien life forms.

Multimammate rat
A common African rodent; the carrier of Lassa virus.

Nextstrain
An open-source website project that maps the genomes of viruses, including the COVID-19 virus. Viral genome-mapping is vital to tracing viruses and anticipating their spread.

Oncolytic viruses
Viruses that can attack cancer cells and reproduce inside them without harming healthy cells. 

Pokot
A rural African tribe located in northern Kenya and Uganda.

Predict Program
An initiative launched during the George W. Bush Administration that identified new infections and disease threats around the globe and trained support staff in foreign laboratories. After identifying over 1,000 new viruses worldwide, it was discontinued this past October.

SARS-CoV-2
The new coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. It stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, the name chosen by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses in February 2020. It is genetically similar to SARS-CoV, the coronavirus that caused the SARS epidemic of 2003.

Spanish flu
A common name for the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which killed an estimated 25 million to 50 million people worldwide. Spanish newspapers were among the first to report on the outbreak, in May 1918, which gave the false impression that Spain was hit particularly hard by the flu. Modern theories suggest it may have started in China or in Kansas.

Sublingual method
Measuring body temperature under the tongue.

Thermoscope
The first all-purpose tool to measure temperature, invented around 1600 by Galileo. It was a water-filled tube that used glass bubbles and principles of density to make its calculation.

Triage
A way for medical facilities to determine the order in which patients are treated, based on the severity of their illnesses or wounds. More severe cases are given priority.

Tympanic thermometer
An ear thermometer, which uses infrared sensors to determine temperature in the ear canal’s blood vessels. Invented in 1964.

Temporal artery thermometers 
Forehead thermometers; quick-acting temperature readers most often encountered in triage situations.

Virtual choir
A group vocal performance in which the singers record their parts individually, and the sound files are layered on top of one another with digital recording software for a coherent, blended sound.

Visceral leishmaniasis
A parasitic infection spread by sandflies that causes about 20,000 deaths annually, mostly in rural, tropical climates.

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