Simon Harris sorry for ‘awful boo-boo’ about 18 viruses before Covid-19

Minister apologises for mistake, saying he can be an ‘awful old idiot at times’

Minister for Health Simon Harris has apologised for making what he called an “awful boo-boo” by incorrectly saying during a radio interview that there were 18 other coronaviruses before Covid-19.

Mr Harris made the error when explaining during an interview on RTÉ 2FM’s breakfast show on Wednesday why a vaccine may not be found for the current coronavirus for some time.

“Remember this is coronavirus Covid-19 - that means there have been 18 other coronaviruses and I don’t think they have actually successfully found a vaccine for any,” he said in the interview.

The State’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan was asked to clarify this remark at the Department of Health’s daily briefing on the pandemic on Wednesday. Dr Holohan said Covid-19 was the seventh coronavirus and that it had been named after the year in which it first occurred.


“The ‘19’ comes from the name in the year which it arose,” Dr Holohan explained.

Cabin fever

Following the briefing, Mr Harris posted a video on Twitter acknowledging and apologising for his mistake.

He told his 146,000 followers that he made “an awful boo-boo.”

“Don’t ask me how or why; I can only presume it’s a degree of cabin fever after being in this department on a very, very regular basis for the very last while - maybe a bit of sleep deprivation - I stupidly talked about there being 18 other coronaviruses, which of course there isn’t,” he said.

The minister struck a self-deprecating tone in his video, saying that he can be an “awful old idiot at times”. He apologised for any confusion that his error caused.

Mr Harris said he was trying to make a point in the earlier interview that the public have to accept the reality that this virus “might be with us for quite a period of time” and that it had to be suppressed to a “safe enough level” so that people can “live alongside it.”

“My apologies for making a stupid mistake this morning,” he said.

“Don’t tell anybody but I am human and it happens from time to time.”

The disease caused by the virus that has killed more than 180,000 people around the globe, including more than 700 in the Republic, is called Covid-19. It is derived from Corona (Co) Virus (vi) Disease (d) and 19, denoting the year 2019 that it first emerged in.

US mistake

Kellyann Conway, counsellor to US president Donald Trump, made a similar mistake last week around the name when criticising the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“Some of the scientists and doctors say that there could be other strains later on, that this could come back in the Fall in a limited way,” she said in an interview on the Fox US television network.

“This is Covid-19, not Covid-1 folks, and so you would think that the people in charge of the World Health Organisation facts and figures would be on top of that.”

She was speaking about Mr Trump’s decision to halt funding to the WHO after he criticised the organisation for not doing enough to stop the spread of the virus after it first emerged in China.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times