What is coronavirus? Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause respiratory illness in humans. They get their name, “corona,” from the many crown-like spikes on the surface of the virus. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and the common cold are examples of coronaviruses that cause illness in humans. The new strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, was first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The virus has since spread to all continents (except Antarctica).