Experts debunked the claim that the novel coronavirus is a type of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, which has caused unnecessary panic on Chinese social media.
The novel coronavirus may share some genetic similarities with the SARS virus－both use the same ACE2 receptor to enter cells, for example－but it is inaccurate to say novel coronavirus is a type of SARS virus, they said.
The controversy began on Sunday night when virologist Chen Huanchun made the claim, which quickly went viral on Chinese social media and led to scientists scrambling to refute it.
Chen later apologized for the error in speaking, saying he intended to say both viruses belong to the same broad category－both are beta coronaviruses, one of the four major genera of the coronaviruses first discovered in 1968.
The SARS epidemic between 2002 and 2003 still strikes a sensitive nerve in the Chinese public since it was the first viral outbreak in the 21st century to seriously challenge the nation's public health infrastructure and response mechanisms.
SARS's visible symptoms are also more serious, and it has a higher death rate, around 9.6 percent, than novel coronavirus, which is estimated to be around 2 to 4 percent, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
As a result, scientists have been very careful when comparing the two coronaviruses. Zhong Nanshan, the leading expert spearheading China's epidemic response, was the first scientist to speak out against Chen's claim.
"The novel coronavirus belongs to a parallel classification of the SARS virus," he said. "They may belong to the same category, but they are not the same species. They are very different."
Of all the coronaviruses discovered, only seven can infect humans, according to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Four are alpha coronaviruses, and the other three are beta coronaviruses such as SARS, novel coronavirus and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.
According to the journal Lancet, novel coronavirus and SARS share about 79 percent of their genetic sequence, meaning they are related but are very distant organisms. In comparison, humans share 96 percent of their genes with chimpanzees and 80 percent with cows, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.