A newly identified coronavirus has been spreading in China, and has now reached several other countries. As the number of confirmed cases and deaths continue to rise, health officials are working on all fronts to learn more about the virus and put measure into place to curtail its spread. Here’s a look at what you need to know about the virus, now called 2019-nCoV.
Let’s start from a definition first. So what is a coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause respiratory illnesses such as the common cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most people get infected with coronaviruses at one point in their lives, but symptoms are typically mild to moderate. In some cases, the viruses can cause lower-respiratory tract illnesses such as pneumonia and bronchitis.
These viruses are common amongst animals worldwide, but only a handful of them are known to affect humans. Rarely, coronaviruses can evolve and spread from animals to humans. This is what happened with the coronaviruses known as the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-Cov), both of which are known to cause more severe symptoms.
As of Jan. 25, there are nearly 1,300 confirmed cases and 41 deaths linked to the 2019-nCoV virus in China, according to news reports. The first cases of the pneumonia-like virus were reported in Wuhan, China on Dec. 31, 2019. Since then, the virus has spread to various other countries, including Thailand, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the United States, Australia, France, among others.
Since the virus first popped up in Wuhan in people who had visited a local seafood and animal market, officials could only say it likely hopped from an animal to humans. In a new study, however, researchers sequenced the genes of 2019-nCoV (as the virus is now called), and then they compared it with the genetic sequences of more than 200 coronaviruses that infect various animals around the world. Their results, detailed in the Journal of Medical Virology, suggested that 2019-nCoV likely originated in snakes.
As for what kind of snake, the scientists noted there are two snakes that are common to southeastern China where the outbreak originated: the many-banded krait (Bungarus multicinctus) and the Chinese cobra (Naja atra).
However, some experts have criticized the study, saying it’s unclear if coronaviruses can indeed infect snakes.
Some viruses are known to become capable of transmitting to humans, and this coronavirus is one of those. But how? The study published in the Journal of Medical Virology, revealing the likely snake host, also found that a change to one of the viral proteins in 2019-nCoV allows the virus to recognize and bind to receptors on certain host cells. This ability is a critical step to entering cells, and the researchers said that the change in this particular protein may have helped the virus hop to humans.
Yes, in limited cases, according to the CDC, but the primary mode of transmission seems to be from animal to human. In terms of how one would catch the virus, the CDC says that human coronaviruses are most commonly spread between an infected person and others via:
—the air (from viral particles from a cough or sneeze);
—close personal contact (touching or shaking hands);
—an object or surface with viral particles on it (then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands);
—and rarely from fecal contamination.
In order for this virus, or any, to lead to a pandemic in humans, it needs to do three things: efficiently infect humans, replicate in humans and then spread easily among humans, Live Science previously reported. Right now, the CDC is saying this virus passes between humans in a limited manner, but they are still investigating.
So to answer the question of the post. We have to understand the differences. MERS and SARS have both been known to cause severe symptoms in people. It’s unclear how the new coronavirus will compare in severity, as it has caused severe symptoms and death in some patients while causing only mild illness in others, according to the CDC. All three of the coronaviruses can be transmitted between humans through close contact.
MERS, which was transmitted from touching infected camels or consuming their meat or milk, was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and has mostly been contained in the Arabian Peninsula, according to NPR. SARS was first reported in 2002 in southern China (no new cases have been reported since 2004) and is thought to have spread from bats that infected civets. The new coronavirus was likely transmitted from touching or eating an infected animal in Wuhan.
During the SARS outbreak, the virus killed about 1 in 10 people who were infected. The death rate from 2019-nCoV isn’t yet known, although most of the patients who have died from the infection have been older than 60 and have had preexisting conditions. However, more recently, a young healthy man died in Wuhan, raising concern that the virus might be more dangerous than thought, according to The Washington Post.
Symptoms of the new coronavirus include fever, cough and difficulty breathing. These symptoms are similar to those caused by SARS, according to a recent study published in the journal The Lancet.
Despite sharing some symptoms that were similar to SARS, there “are some important differences,” such as the absence of upper respiratory tract symptoms like runny nose, sneezing and sore throat and intestinal symptoms like diarrhea, which affected 20% to 25% of SARS patients, lead author Bin Cao, from the China-Japan Friendship Hospital and the Capital Medical University, both in Beijing, said in a statement.
There are no specific treatments for coronavirus infections and most people will recover on their own, according to the CDC. So treatment involves rest and medication to relieve symptoms. A humidifier or hot shower can help to relieve a sore throat and cough. If you are mildly sick, you should drink a lot of fluids and rest but if you are worried about your symptoms, you should see a healthcare provider, they wrote. (This is advice for all coronaviruses, not specifically aimed toward the new virus).
There is no vaccine for the new coronavirus but researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health confirmed they were in preliminary stages of developing one. In addition, the drug company Regeneron announced that it is in the early stages of developing a treatment for this virus, according to NBC News.
Looking at what happened with MERS and SARS, it’s likely that some spread of the virus from close contact between humans will continue to occur, according to CDC. More cases will likely be identified in the coming days.
If traveling to Wuhan, you should avoid contact with sick people, avoid dead or alive animals, animal markets or products that come from animals such as uncooked meat, according to the CDC. You should often wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, they wrote. If you are infected by the virus you can take steps to help avoid transmitting it to others such as isolating yourself at home, separating yourself from other people in the house, wearing a face mask, covering your coughs and sneezes and washing your hands, according to the CDC.
But we may be chasing our tails, as animals testing positive may not be the source of the current outbreak. We need to step back and learn the broader lessons here.
The perfect conditions for the emergence of human pandemics from previously unknown zoonotic pathogens has been created as a result of three things. First, the shift from subsistence hunting of wildlife to its sale into an international trade network largely driven by demand in China. Second, the extensive cross-exposure within this wildlife trade of species and species populations, which would not mix or be in contact in the wild. And, third, the exploitation of new source populations as areas become depleted of target species.
It is also important to emphasise that these wild animals are typically now more expensive to buy (sometime a status symbol) than domestic livestock, so the demand that perpetuates wildlife trade in the region is a dietary choice and not driven by low income.
The solution is collective action to remove the demand and also the supply chains to these wildlife markets and “farms” (often laundering animals from the wild rather than breeding them). The call to close wildlife markets across China – which started following the SARS outbreak – has also been echoed by experts in China and in external organisations worldwide, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society.
So maybe it’s a signal for change. Whatever it is, while we face what is coming, be wary but not paranoid. Stay safe.
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