INFECTIOUS DISEASE

What Is Coronavirus?

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
 | 
February 28, 2020

Researchers are working on ways to halt the growing epidemic caused by a new coronavirus.  

Headlines around the world continue to spread news about the coronavirus outbreak, which has, so far, sickened people primarily in several countries in Europe, the United States, China, Iran, and South Korea. In all, however, cases have been reported in more than 170 countries, and a pandemic has officially been declared.

Within a few months since the novel coronavirus was first known to be causing illness, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned countries to prepare for a pandemic.

(For live statistical updates, visit this coronavirus tracker, the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering interactive virus dashboard, or The New York Times' coronavirus map. For more information on the virus itself and its effect on the U.S. population and the world at large, visit this special web page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

So, what is coronavirus, specifically? The infectious agent in the news, first detected in Wuhan City, China, in late 2019, belongs to a large family of coronaviruses. The “corona” label comes from crown-like spikes seen on these pathogens when coronaviruses are under a microscope.

Mostly, coronaviruses infect bats, pigs, and some other small mammals. However, coronaviruses can mutate and move from only infecting animals to also infecting humans, what scientists call a “spillover event,” the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) explains. Then a coronavirus can be transmitted person-to-person.

The current pandemic is caused by a new type of coronavirus in humans, which WHO has named Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Because early reports of the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan seemed associated with people who visited a large seafood and live animal market in the city, animal-to-person spread was believed to be the cause.

However, the CDC reports a growing number of people infected with COVID-19 did not have exposure to any animal markets, indicating person-to-person spread is how the disease is being transmitted, most likely from respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Understanding the coronavirus

In all, there are hundreds of coronaviruses that infect animals and only seven coronaviruses known to sicken humans.

Most types of coronaviruses cause only mild-to-moderate upper respiratory tract illnesses in people, with symptoms much like the common cold, according to the NIAID. However, since 2002, three types of coronaviruses have caused severe disease in people: SARS (which was first recognized in late 2002 but disappeared by 2004); MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), a disease found in camels that can sicken humans; and the current COVID-19 epidemic.

When people hear animals can have coronaviruses, there can be unfounded worries and rumors about pets potentially spreading the disease. Good news: There is no reason to think any animals or pets in the U.S. might be a source of infection with the new coronavirus, according to the CDC.

We can’t emphasize this enough: Progress in halting the new coronavirus

The largest study to date on COVID-19 concluded, while the coronavirus can be fatal, those at highest risk are people who already have pre-existing health problems, especially cardiovascular illness. Men are also more likely to have a severe case of the disease than women. Numerous studies on the effects of and treatment for the virus are ongoing, according to the WHO and the scientific journal Biomed Central.

Chinese researchers analyzed the medical records of 72,314 patient diagnosed with the virus and found most confirmed cases were in adults between the ages of 30 and 69 and most were exposed to the coronavirus in Wuhan.

Over 80 percent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases were classified as mild, and fewer than 5 percent became critical (meaning the patients developed life-threatening problems, including respiratory failure, multiple organ dysfunction, or respiratory failure). However, half of the patients in critical condition died.

Scientists are drawing on what they learned from other outbreaks of coronavirus illness in humans — especially deadly SARS, which swept across the globe in 2003, primarily through air travel — to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And quarantines and travel restrictions, which were important to halting SARS, are in effect to keep the new coronavirus from spreading further.

What’s more, previous research into the SARS and MERS outbreaks is helping scientists to quickly assess the new coronavirus and find ways to prevent and hopefully treat COVID-19, the NIAID points out.

To that end, within two weeks of the discovery of the new coronavirus, NIAID researchers had already figured out how the virus enters cells, and a global effort was launched to contain, prevent, and treat the COVID-19.

The National Institutes of Health is working on a vaccine to protect against the new coronavirus. Meanwhile, several drugs are under investigation to find an effective treatment for COVID-19. Learn more here, here, and here

Bottom line: Common sense virus prevention strategies are key

While it’s normal to be concerned about a potential pandemic caused by the new coronavirus, it’s important to remember a bigger threat to Americans: the flu.

The flu has already killed 10,000 Americans this year, according to the CDC, and 180,000 have become so sick they had to be hospitalized. Remember to get a flu shot, if you haven’t already.

While more than 50,000 cases of the new coronavirus have been reported in the U.S., the CDC recommends these preventive actions to help prevent the spread of all respiratory diseases:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and then throw it away.
  • Stay home when you are ill.
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes.
  • Use a disinfectant spray or wipe to clean frequently touched objects and surfaces around your home or office.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Our Cold and Flu Season section

Updated:  

March 30, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell