Myth: The virus that causes COVID-19 is just a mutated version of the common cold
This myth came about because there are many types of coronavirus, and some of them do cause colds. However, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is new and did not arise directly from the coronaviruses that cause colds.
Coronaviruses are a family of related viruses. Some members of the family infect humans, and some infect only animals. The coronavirus which causes COVID-19 is thought to have started off in an animal host such as a bat, before mutating enough to infect humans.
The common cold is the name given to infections of the upper respiratory system that cause symptoms like sneezing, blocked nose, coughing and sore throat. These infections can be caused by several different viruses, not just coronaviruses.
While some of the symptoms of COVID-19, such as a cough and sore throat, are similar to those of the common cold, COVID-19 can make people much more seriously ill than colds. It’s a different disease, caused by a different coronavirus.
Where did the story come from?
The myth was reported on the website Medical News Today, which set out to debunk the assertion that “SARS-Cov-2 is just a mutated form of the common cold.” It is unclear where the myth originated.
What is the basis for the claim?
There are thought to be hundreds of coronaviruses, and seven are known to infect humans.
An article in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association summarised what is known about coronaviruses in humans, in particular those that cause serious disease.
Four coronaviruses (called 229E, NL63, OC43, HKU1) cause mild respiratory infections in humans, such as the common cold. Up to 30% of common colds are thought to be caused by these more common, non-serious types of coronavirus. The rest are caused by different types of viruses such as rhinoviruses, respiratory syncytial virus, or by viruses yet to be identified.
Three of the human coronaviruses cause more severe illness:
- SARS-CoV, which caused the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2003
- MERS-CoV, which caused the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2012
- SARS-CoV-2, which is causing the current COVID-19 pandemic.
SARV-CoV-2 is most closely related to the SARS-CoV virus. Both viruses are thought to have started as a coronavirus infecting animals, possibly bats, before mutating sufficiently to infect humans.
What do trusted sources say?
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says: “The virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, like the common cold.”
Analysis by EIU Healthcare, supported by Reckitt Benckiser
- Coronavirus myths explored. Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/coronavirus-myths-explored. (Accessed 4 May 2020).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Human Coronavirus Types. February 15 2020. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/types.html (Accessed 4 May 2020)
- Paules CI, Marston HD, Fauci AS. Coronavirus Infections—More Than Just the Common Cold. JAMA. 2020;323(8):707–708. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.0757