Coronavirus: What We Know About This New Respiratory Disease

Coronavirus: What We Know About This New Respiratory Disease

Coronaviruses are a new type of virus that are common in animals. Rarely they can also infect humans. In December 2019, a newly-identified coronavirus – 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) – was first identified in Wuhan, a city in China. The disease produces viral pneumonia symptoms.

As the 2019 novel coronavirus is so new, it is impossible to say with certainty how contagious it is or even to know definitely how it is spread. This is what we know so far, although this is a rapidly changing situation and the picture can alter quickly…

Where has it come from?

2019 novel coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan in China in December 2019. The exact source isn’t yet known but experts believe it may be linked to a seafood market in the city, as several visitors to the market developed viral pneumonia caused by 2019-nCoV.

However, the person with the first reported case of the disease became ill on 1 December 2019 and had no link to the market. It is generally believed that the virus probably originated from an animal source, however it is now spreading from person to person.

Under a microscope, coronaviruses look like they are covered in pointed structures which gives them the appearance of a crown, hence their name. There are many different types of coronaviruses, some of which can cause respiratory illnesses. Other coronaviruses that can cause serious diseases include Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome).

How is it spread?

As it is such a new illness, experts don’t yet know how coronavirus spreads from person to person, but similar viruses are spread by cough droplets. It is not yet clear how contagious 2019-nCoV is but it is now able to pass from person to person. The World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control in the US are monitoring the virus and taking steps to prevent it from spreading.

What are the symptoms and how is it diagnosed?

2019-nCoV causes viral pneumonia. Symptoms include:

  • Fever (high temperature)
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • In some cases severe respiratory problems, kidney failure or death

 Because the symptoms are similar to flu or a bad cold, it requires a laboratory test to confirm a diagnosis of 2019-nCoV.

How dangerous is it?

The UK Chief Medical Officers have raised the risk to the public from low to moderate. However, according to the NHS, the risk to individuals of contracting 2019-nCoV remains low.

If you have returned from Hubei province in the last 14 days, you are advised to avoid contact with other people and call NHS 111 to advise them of your recent travels, even if you have no symptoms. If you do experience symptoms you should not leave your house.

Currently there is no specific treatment for 2019-nCoV and no vaccination to protect against the disease. People who develop 2019 novel coronavirus are treated for their symptoms and may also be given research drugs and therapeutics.

As of 9 February 2020, there were 813 deaths from the disease, all but two of which occurred in mainland China. One person has died in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines. The majority of fatalities have been in China’s Hubei province where the outbreak began and include the doctor who first alerted officials to the outbreak in December, Dr Li Wenliang. Deaths from 2019-nCoV have overtaken those of the Sars epidemic in 2003. Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, has been in lockdown for several weeks. Schools in Hubei province are expected to be closed until at least 1 March.

More than 34,800 people have been infected with the new virus worldwide. Again, most are in China. In January, the World Health Organization declared the 2019-nCoV outbreak a global health emergency. France has 11 cases of the disease, including five British nationals.

What can I do to protect myself?

Advice from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention includes:

  • Staying at home if you are unwell and avoiding close contact with people who are unwell.
  • Covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue and putting this into the bin to prevent the virus from spreading. Washing your hands afterwards or using a sanitiser gel.
  • Washing hands thoroughly with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitiser if none is available. This is particularly important if you are using public transport.
  • Avoiding touching your nose, eyes or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • If you have returned from China in the last 14 days, following the advice above to avoid public places.

While the risk to people in the UK from 2019-nCoV is low, other viral conditions such as flu and colds are more common and can be a risk to people who are vulnerable.

These sorts of preventative measures are helpful for avoiding the spread of all types of respiratory diseases.