The novel coronavirus is all that anyone’s talking about these days. The epidemic turned bustling cities in China into ghost towns and has caused panic around the world like never before, which is why it is important to understand what it is and how it came to be.
Coronaviruses are actually a group of very common viruses that cause respiratory problems including the simple common cold as well as the serious diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Coronaviruses usually infect and are transmitted among mammals and birds. But sometimes, they also evolve to infect humans as in the case of SARS, MERS, and the current new strain of coronavirus.
Now officially named “COVID-19” by the WHO, the novel coronavirus is a new strain that was first identified in early December 2019 when 41 people in China’s Hubei Province developed pneumonia without any apparent cause. Scientists believe the infection originated in the “wet market” of Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei, where live and dead animals are sold in close proximity to each other and in badly regulated conditions.
According to Trevor Bedford, a bioinformatics specialist at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the virus infected a single person and spread to others through human-to-human transmission. On January 23, 2020, a specialist team at Wuhan Institute of Virology reported that the new coronavirus is 79.5% genetically similar to SARS virus and 96.2% genetically similar to a bat virus, making bats a highly likely origin.
That very day, the central government of China imposed a total lockdown of Wuhan and several other cities in Hubei to contain the spread of the virus. With over 57 million people now confined, the scale of the quarantine is unprecedented in human history.
As of February 12, 2020, there are 45,170 confirmed cases worldwide. Of these, 44,730 cases are in China with 1,114 fatalities, including a 60-year-old American man, over 8,200 in serious condition, and over 4,700 recoveries. In the rest of the world, there are 441 confirmed cases with one fatality in the Philippines and 12 in serious condition.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the medium age of those infected is between 49 and 56. Also, according to the February 4 analysis by the National Health Commission (NHC) of China, males made up two-thirds of the fatalities and females one-third. Of these fatalities, 80% were over 60 years of age, and 75% had underlying diseases like diabetes, tumors, or cardiovascular diseases.
For reasons that as yet remain a mystery to the scientists, there have been almost no cases of infections in children below 15 years of age. The only exceptions are a baby born on February 2 in Wuhan whose mother was infected before birth, a six-month-old baby in Singapore, and an eight-year-old from Wuhan in Australia.
Being a respiratory virus, it is transmitted through respiratory droplets. These are fluids from the nose or the saliva from the mouth. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the virus gets dispersed into the air and lands on others or on the surroundings. Or, if the infected person coughs or sneezes into their hand, it gets transmitted through physical contact.
It takes two to 14 days for the symptoms to start showing once the virus is transmitted and the symptoms, which include fever, cough, shortness of breath, diarrhea, can range from none to mild to severe. Showing no symptoms or mild symptoms presents difficulty in diagnosing the infection since it is winter in most of the countries involved, and most people could have coughs, colds, or fevers without being infected by the virus. So, rather than relying just on symptoms, a lab test is a surer way to confirm infection.
What should you do to protect yourself from the infection?
For one, don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth without first thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water, or sanitizing with an alcohol-based rub. Always sneeze or cough into your elbow or a tissue rather than your hands. Then, discard the tissue and wash your hands.
According to a 2014 study by scientists at MIT, the spray mist of a sneeze or cough can travel up to 2.5 meters, or over eight feet, and the cloud can reach as high as 4.5 meters, or almost 15 feet. So, steering clear of someone who is about to cough or sneeze, and staying away from others when you cough or sneeze by a minimum of one meter or three feet would decrease the chances of transmission.
Since January, several organizations, including the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, three projects supported by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., and the International Vaccine Centre, have been developing vaccines that could reach human trials in a few months.
Meanwhile, our thoughts and prayers are with everyone battling the virus and their families, and we wish them a full recovery and good health. We also send our well-wishes to the medical staff, researchers, and volunteers who are working around the clock, barely getting enough sleep. And the rest of you, be safe and read about the novel coronavirus from trustworthy websites rather than sensationalist ones.
While we try to inform you about the virus as accurately as possible, please note that all the information in this article is based on data available as of February 12, 2020. If you are reading this article at a later date, new developments could make some of this information outdated.