I've seen references to asymptomatic COVID-19 cases, and am wondering if this is incorrect use of the term. If COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, then aren't truly asymptomatic cases simply carriers of the virus?

The American Heritage dictionary defines disease as:

An abnormal condition of a part, organ, or system of an organism resulting from various causes, such as infection, inflammation, environmental factors, or genetic defect, and characterized by an identifiable group of signs, symptoms, or both."

  • "Labus noted that up to half of people who contract the virus may be asymptomatic carriers of the disease. However, we still don’t have a good understanding of how infectious people are if they’re not showing symptoms, he said." Aug 2, 2020 at 15:21
  • @IlikeThatMeow I believe you've misunderstood the question. COVID-19 is the disease and SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes it. If never have symptoms, do you have the disease or are you just a carrier? Aug 2, 2020 at 15:27
  • ah :) Got it now. The answer is both then, disease and carrier. One can have the disease, the test was positive, and at the same time one has no symptoms. By the link above, one is also a carrier. Aug 2, 2020 at 15:39
  • For the sake of clarity, “radiologic evidence” would be classified as a SIGN of disease, rather than a SYMPTOM.
    – BMK_83
    Sep 29, 2020 at 3:51

1 Answer 1


As an analogy, people who test positive for HIV don't necessarily have AIDS. However, as a better-understood disease, AIDS has a very specific set of diagnostic criteria, e.g., they must have a CD4+ T cells count less than 200 cells/mm³.

COVID-19 research is still ongoing and the diagnostic criteria aren't as clear cut. In the future we may have a clear definition of what it means to be diagnosed with COVID-19, in which case whether or not there are obvious symptoms will become irrelevant.

In the short term, it's probably safer to refer to asymptomatic carriers of SARS-CoV-2 or of the coronavirus in common parlance.

  • That said, the lay public (at least in the US where I am) seems to have landed on "COVID-19" as the general term they understand. For medical and scientific professionals I think the distinction makes sense. For the rest of the public not so much, and it might even do disservice to public communication to have both terms around (though I'm not familiar with whether this has been studied before, such as in the case of HIV vs AIDS)
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 2, 2020 at 16:15
  • @BryanKrause by "both terms" do you mean SARS-CoV-2 and "the coronavirus?" In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have brought up the SARS-CoV-2 terminology, as everyone knows which coronavirus we're talking about when we say "the coronavirus" today. Aug 2, 2020 at 22:49
  • COVID-19 the disease vs SARS-CoV-2 the virus, the equivalents of AIDS/HIV. "The coronavirus" is probably fine colloquially but should not be used in science or medicine.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 3, 2020 at 1:25
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    It's being found that even asymptomatic patients show radiological evidence of the disease months later, so it's not clear that a distinction between being a carrier and having the disease is useful.
    – Carey Gregory
    Aug 3, 2020 at 4:43

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