What is COVID-19

Information about COVID-19 including where the virus came from, how it spreads, current variants of concern, and treatments.

About COVID-19

COVID-19 is a disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. It affects your lungs, airways and other organs.

Coronaviruses are from a large and diverse family of viruses that cause illnesses such as the common cold. Other recent diseases caused by coronaviruses include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

SARS-CoV-2 was first recognised in China and likely originated in animals. It is still unclear how the virus came to infect humans. The disease spread to other countries, with the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring a pandemic on 11 March 2020.

The virus has since undergone genetic mutations over time as it adapts to humans. Some of these mutations, such as the Delta variant, can spread more easily than the original virus and cause more severe disease.

Variants of COVID-19

It is a natural process for viruses to change or mutate, which may produce variants. Variants are developing around the world. This tends to happen in places where the virus is out of control.

WHO is tracking variants of concern and variants of interest.

Tracking SARS-CoV-2 variants | WHO website (external link)

Variants of COVID-19 may affect how fast the virus spreads, or how sick people get from the virus.

The current variants of concern are:

  • Alpha – first found in the United Kingdom
  • Beta – first found in South Africa
  • Gamma – first found in Brazil
  • Delta – first found in India.

The Ministry of Health is providing updates on these variants.

COVID-19: About the Delta variant (external link)

COVID-19: Science news | health.govt.nz (external link)

How COVID-19 spreads

COVID-19 is usually spread from person to person. When an infected person breathes, speaks, coughs, sneezes or sings, they may spread particles containing the virus.

These particles range in size. Larger and heavier particles — droplets — quickly fall to the ground or other surfaces within seconds or minutes. Smaller particles — aerosols — can remain airborne for minutes to hours. Spread of the virus by aerosols appears to be more important than previously thought.

The risk of airborne transmission becomes higher:

  • in enclosed spaces that do not have good airflow
  • in crowded places with many people nearby
  • in close-contact settings, such as close-range conversations, singing, or shouting.

The risk is lower outside, with fewer people, and if people are widely spread.

How to protect yourself and others

Keeping up healthy habits can slow the spread of the virus and help protect you, your whānau, and your community from COVID-19. Even if you are vaccinated, you still need to keep up these habits.

  • If you have cold, flu or COVID-19 symptoms, stay home and call your doctor or Healthline for free on 0800 358 5453.
  • Regularly wash and thoroughly dry your hands.
  • Sneeze and cough into your elbow.
  • Keep a 2 metre distance from people you do not know.
  • Clean or disinfect shared surfaces often.
  • Wear a face covering.
  • Keep track of where you have been with the NZ COVID Tracer app.

COVID-19 symptoms

The symptoms of COVID-19 are like common illnesses such as the cold or flu. Some people will only experience mild to moderate symptoms. Older people, ethnic minorities, and those with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk of severe illness from the virus.

Some people who have had the virus are suffering health impacts longer than a few weeks or months. This is commonly referred to as Long COVID.

Symptoms of COVID-19 and Long COVID

People at higher risk of COVID-19

COVID-19 treatments

COVID-19 causes 2 major issues that cause harm when someone is infected — a viral attack on the body and in some cases an immune reaction.

Studies for new treatments cover both issues and concentrate on 3 areas.

  • Antiviral drugs limiting the ability of the virus to thrive in the body.
  • Medicines that calm the immune system over-reaction prompted in some patients.
  • Antibody treatments that help the body fight the virus. 

The Ministry of Health has updates on pharmaceutical treatments for COVID-19.

COVID-19 Science Updates | health.govt.nz (external link)

Pharmac is funding appropriate COVID-19 treatments for New Zealanders. The agency decides which medicines to publicly fund in New Zealand.

Pharmac has secured treatments for COVID-19, including:

  • Tocilizumab
  • Remdesivir
  • Molnupiravir
  • Ronapreve
  • Baricitinib.

Medsafe will assess these medicines before treatment for COVID-19.

Find more information on Pharmac's website:

Pharmac is funding COVID-19 treatments (external link)

Our response to COVID-19

Aotearoa New Zealand’s strategy for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is a sustained approach to keep it out, find it, and stamp it out.

We do this through:

  • controlling entry at the border with managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) for 14 days
  • disease surveillance, for example testing anyone with symptoms
  • physical distancing and hygiene measures
  • testing for and tracing all potential cases
  • isolating cases and their contacts
  • broader public health controls depending on the Alert Level we are in.

Find out more about New Zealand’s elimination strategy | health.govt.nz (external link)

New Zealand’s vaccine plan

Vaccination is the next step in protecting people from COVID-19. The Pfizer vaccine is free and available to everyone in New Zealand aged 12 and over.

COVID-19 vaccines

Wastewater testing

Wastewater testing is being used as an extra tool to help check for COVID-19 in New Zealand. It is being used as a surveillance tool alongside testing of:

  • symptomatic people in the community
  • asymptomatic testing of workers at the border and in managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

Information on wastewater testing for COVID-19 (external link)

COVID-19 wastewater testing results around the country | esr.cri.nz (external link)

Last updated: at