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What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

The Wuhan coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, has spread from China to other countries around the globe, including the U.S. What precautions should you take?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #361
washing hands
The Quick And Dirty
  • The large group of viruses collectively called coronaviruses are to blame for something as simple as the common cold.
  • The new novel strain, known as 2019-nCoV, presents with symptoms of fever, coughing, and shortness of breath that crop up within 2-14 days of exposure.
  • The World Health Organization has now declared the spreading coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern.
  • In addition to washing your hands frequently with soap and water, the World Health Organization advises staying out of close contact with anyone with a possible respiratory illness.

News about the coronavirus is spreading as fast as the disease itself. Here’s what we know so far:

What is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are not new. The large group of viruses, collectively called coronaviruses, are to blame for something as simple as the common cold. But the more serious MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) are also flavors of coronaviruses. What makes the current outbreak different is that it is a new strain of coronavirus—in the medical world, the virus is called “novel”—that we haven’t seen in humans before. This means we have not yet learned how it spreads, how severely it can affect the body, or how to get rid of it. 

The new strain, known as 2019-nCoV, presents with symptoms of fever, coughing, and shortness of breath that crop up within 2-14 days of exposure.

The new strain, known as 2019-nCoV, presents with symptoms of fever, coughing, and shortness of breath that crop up within 2-14 days of exposure. Scientists are not yet sure how the virus is spread, but the most likely scenario is that it is airborne and spread from sick people to healthy people. 

How fast is the coronavirus spreading?

When a new virus like 2019-nCoV is discovered, even if it belongs to a family of well-studied viruses, developing a vaccine can take years. With a fast-spreading virus, a few years is a very long time.  

China first reported several cases of pneumonia in a group of people who all had ties to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019. Three days later, a total of 44 cases had been reported in China. Eight days later, the Chinese government identified the cause of these illnesses as the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV. Twenty-one days later, the first confirmed case appeared in the United States—a 35-year-old man in Snohomish County, Washington, who had just returned from visiting family in Wuhan. Twenty-four days later Wuhan and its surrounding cities were put under strict quarantine. 

Developing a vaccine can take years. With a fast-spreading virus, a few years is a very long time.

Thirty days after the original outbreak report, Chinese health officials had confirmed 7,711 cases from every region in mainland China—including the latest case in Tibet—and across 15 countries. And thirty-one days after the outbreak began in Wuhan (and as of this writing), there were a total of9,976 cases reported in 21 countries. Also thirty-one days later, it was reported that a woman from China passed the virus to someone in Germany before she had shown signs of being infected, making her the first case of a person spreading the virus without showing any symptoms

The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared the spreading coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern. This designation is reserved for viruses that are having a global impact and thus might require a coordinated international response. The WHO Director-General noted a particular concern for the spread of the virus to countries without the proper infrastructure and funds to deal with an outbreak. Other viruses that have received the dubious honor of this distinction include Ebola, Zika, and H1N1. 

How much the virus will spread greatly depends on the scale of the epidemic in Wuhan, the site of its original appearance. Imagine if every member of the original cluster of people to be infected reaches two people. And then those two people each reach their own two people, and so on. Those numbers escalate quickly and thus depend strongly on the initial group of patient zeroes. The way this particular coronavirus has spread since those initial group of patients within Wuhan also offers a look at what the spread of the virus might look like in the future for other cities in China and then potentially globally.

Researchers have used mathematical models to estimate that there are likely more than 75,000 cases of 2019-nCoV in Wuhan, well beyond those officially reported. They based their estimates on the number of cases that have cropped up outside of China. 

How can I get updates on the spread of the coronavirus?

For updates on where the virus is spreading, check out Health Map maps reports of cases of a number of viruses. The Center for Disease Control in the US frequently updates their page with everything we currently know about the virus. There is a Twitter account dedicated to coronavirus updates—@CoronaVirusFlu. I also follow virologist Ian MacKay (@MacKayIM) for his evidence-backed updates. 

How can I protect myself against coronavirus?

In addition to washing your hands frequently with soap and water, the World Health Organization advises staying out of close contact with anyone with a possible respiratory illness, as evidenced by coughing or sneezing. If you show signs of fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, see a medical practitioner. Avoid enclosed spaces with lots of people if you can. 

Wear a face mask. Or don’t. Here the advice depends on your own personal tics. You see, that mask won’t block the coronavirus from getting to your face (and your nose and your mouth.) The airborne particles are so small that they easily make their way through a mask. There are masks worn by hospital workers that do block about 95% of airborne particles (including viruses), but those masks are cumbersome and require special training to wear. 

So, paper or cloth surgical mask itself won’t act as a shield, but the act of wearing a face mask may keep you from touching your face. As Kate Winslet’s character in Contagion repeatedly reminds the others, we touch our faces constantly throughout the day—a surefire way of helping viruses to spread. However, others point out that if a mask is itchy or uncomfortable, it might lead you to touch your face even more. Either way, the mask may serve as a helpful reminder to wash your hands frequently. 

Keep in mind that you are likely not at immediate risk unless there are reports of spreading from human to human transmission in your area.

When reading the news about coronavirus, it is easy to panic. But keep in mind that you are likely not at immediate risk unless there are reports of spreading from human to human transmission in your area. 

Can the 2019-nCoV coronavirus be stopped?

We stopped SARS through public health interventions—those infected were isolated through travel restrictions, quarantines, and airport screenings. However, those infected with SARS showed symptoms before they could pass it on to the next person, which now may not be true of 2019-nCoV. And there are already more 2019-nCoV cases reported in the last month than there were SARS cases over the 8 to 9 months of its reign. So far, though, the fatality rate for the virus originating in Wuhan is around 2 percent, which is much lower than the fatality rate of nearly 10 percent for SARS. 

The fatality rate for the virus originating in Wuhan is around 2 percent, which is much lower than the fatality rate of nearly 10 percent for SARS.

The development of a vaccine could also keep 2019-nCoV at bay. Vaccines for pertussis, measles, mumps, and others have kept those diseases from reaching epidemic status. But again, developing a vaccine could take years. 

Travel keeps us deeply interconnected in this world. Even if/when we eradicate this latest novel virus, it is not likely to be the last.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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