What is a coronavirus and how can we stay safe?

6th February 2020 by Anna Tzani

What is a Coronavirus? alt According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), coronaviruses are a family of viruses known for containing strains that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe and potentially deadly diseases, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).[1]

In humans they're typically spread via airborne droplets of fluid produced by infected individuals when coughing or sneezing and typically lead to an upper respiratory infection.[2] Most people will be infected with at least one type of coronavirus in their lifetime. The illness caused by most coronaviruses usually lasts a short time and is characterised by runny nose, sore throat, fatigue, cough, and fever.[3]

What is the 2019 Novel Coronavirus?

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, is a new respiratory virus first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.[4] It is a novel coronavirus – a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other viruses, it has come from animal hosts. Ebola and flu are other examples that originate from animals.[5]

What is the source of 2019-nCoV?

Public health officials and partners are working hard to identify the source of the 2019-nCoV. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some of which are causing illness in people and some others circulating among animals, including camels, cats and bats. Analysis of the genetic tree of this virus is ongoing to identify the specific source of the virus. All coronaviruses have similar characteristics, for example they are all highly pathogenic to humans or livestock, their agents originated from bats, and two of them, SARS and MERS, originated in China.[6] SARS and MERS, caused a worldwide pandemic last decade and came from civet cats and camels, respectively.[1] In fact, researchers had predicted a new coronavirus outbreak originated from bats, which would be more likely to emerge in China.[6] However, Chinese scientists have previously mentioned that snakes are another possible source, but there is not enough supporting evidence yet.[1]

How does the 2019-nCoV spread?

This virus probably originally emerged from an animal source but now seems to be spreading from person-to-person. Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission.[7] It’s important to note that person-to-person spread can happen on a continuum. Some viruses are highly contagious (like measles), while other viruses are less so. At this time, it’s unclear how easily or sustainably this virus is spreading between people.[8]

What are the symptoms caused by the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties.[4] In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. If people are admitted to hospital, they may receive support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of the patients’ immune system.[9]

How can I help protect myself?

The WHO and the Centers for Control and Disease Prevention (CDC) recommend that you take the usual viral precautions to help prevent the spread of the Wuhan virus:[1],[4]

• Wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

• Cover your mouth and nose with your inner elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth if your hands aren't clean.

• Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick.

• Clean regularly surfaces you often touch.

• Stay home and not at work, school and public areas if you're sick.

In addition to the above, the WHO recommends these steps:[1]

• Check with your doctor if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and tell them about any recent travels.

• Avoid eating raw meat or animal organs.

• If you're visiting live markets in areas that have recently had novel coronavirus cases, avoid contact with live animals and surfaces they may have touched.

Is the use of facemask in the community recommended to prevent 2019-nCoV?

No, a regular surgical mask will not help you steer clear of the virus. A more specialised mask, known as an N95 respirator, can protect against 2019-nCoV. The N95 respirator is thicker than a surgical mask, however it is not yet recommended for public use.[10]

1. https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus
2. https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=22789
3. https://www.sciencealert.com/coronavirus
4. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/index.html
5. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/03/what-is-coronavirus-and-how-worried-should-symptoms-wuhan-china
6. Fan et al. Viruses. 2019 Mar; 11(3): 210.
7. https://www.livescience.com/new-china-coronavirus-faq.html
8. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/transmission.html
9. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/coronavirus-update/
10. https://www.livescience.com/face-mask-new-coronavirus.html