What Is the History of Coronavirus?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on November 21, 2023
5 min read

Coronaviruses are a big family of different viruses. Some of them cause the common cold in people. Others infect animals, including bats, camels, and cattle. But how did SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, come into being?

Here’s what we know about the history of the coronavirus that was first detected in late 2019 and set off a global pandemic.

There are two hypotheses as to COVID-19's origins: exposure to an infected animal or a laboratory leak. There is not enough evidence to support either argument.

The latest intelligence reports agree that the SARS-CoV-2 is not genetically engineered or developed as a biological weapon. They do say it is possible a version of a coronavirus was being studied with animals in a lab and exposure occurred there. Again, there is not enough evidence for a definitive conclusion.

Because the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in China, there has been a lot of anti-Asian speech and acts around the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Other recent, serious epidemics have begun on other continents -- Ebola virus and Zika virus, among them. Coronavirus is unique in that a certain racial or ethnic group has been blamed and targeted for the disease.

Why is it called COVID-19?

The virus that causes COVID-19 is called SARS-CoV-2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. The disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus was originally called the 2019 novel (new) coronavirus. The shortened name is COVID-19.

Virus names are based on their genetic structure. The virus that causes COVID-19 was given the name SARS-CoV-2 because it is genetically similar to the virus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. 

You should use scientific language when referring to coronavirus disease and avoid offensive terms such as “Wuhan flu” or “Chinese flu,” which have led to a rise in anti-Asian racism and violence. It is also not correct to call COVID-19, which has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide as of late 2023, the flu. Coronavirus disease is not caused by a flu (influenza) virus.

When was the first case of COVID-19?

There have been numerous studies to determine the origins of SARS-CoV-2, but none has been conclusive. The coronaviruses behind Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) developed from bats.

COVID-19 first appeared on a small scale in November 2019 with the first large cluster appearing in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. It was first thought that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, made the jump to humans at one of Wuhan, China’s, open-air “wet markets.” Wet markets are partially or fully open-air markets that sell fresh produce and meat. China's in-country World Health Organization office learned of multiple pneumonia cases of unknown cause with symptoms such as fever and shortness of breath that seemed to be connected to the market. 

As COVID-19 spread both inside and outside China, it infected people who had no direct contact with animals. That meant the virus was transmitted from one human to another. Its spread continued to the U.S. and around the globe, where people unwittingly caught and passed on the virus. The worldwide transmission caused a pandemic to be declared on March 11, 2020, by the World Health Organization.


Scientists first identified a human coronavirus in 1965. It caused a common cold. Later that decade, researchers found a group of similar human and animal viruses and named them after their crown-like appearance.

Seven coronaviruses can infect humans. The one that causes SARS emerged in southern China in 2002 and quickly spread to 28 other countries. More than 8,000 people were infected by July 2003, and 774 died. A small outbreak in 2004 involved only four more cases. This coronavirus causes fever, headache, and respiratory problems such as cough and shortness of breath.

MERS started in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Almost all of the nearly 2,500 cases have been in people who live in or travel to the Middle East. This coronavirus is less contagious than SARS but more deadly, killing 858 people. It has the same respiratory symptoms but can also cause kidney failure.

COVID-19 is one of seven coronaviruses that are known to infect humans. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is genetically related to the virus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. There is still no definitive theory as to coronavirus disease's origins. Scientists aren't sure whether it jumped from animals to humans or was developed in a lab. Because the coronavirus disease outbreak began in Wuhan, China, there has been a rash of anti-Asian language and behavior unlike what's been seen in previous disease outbreaks. Several years after the pandemic began, the history of this novel coronavirus is still being written.

When was coronavirus 1 first discovered?

The first human coronavirus was discovered in 1965. Coronaviruses cause respiratory diseases and can infect humans and animals. In humans, the virus can appear as a mild cold or as a more serious disease such as pneumonia.

What was the first COVID-19 history?

The virus that causes COVID-19 was a novel coronavirus, meaning it had never infected humans. The virus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in 2019 and spread rapidly around the globe. It was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020. 

When were coronaviruses first named?

The name comes from the viruses' distinctive spikes, which look like a crown. When the first one was discovered in 1965, scientists named it coronavirus.