You’ve likely heard mention of the coronavirus in the news. The scientific name of the virus causing the outbreak originating in Wuhan, China, is the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV. It’s a new strain of a known type of virus that can infect both animals and humans.
What exactly is a coronavirus?
First identified more than 50 years ago, coronaviruses are named for their shape—which looks like a crown–when viewed with a microscope. Coronaviruses spread in similar ways to other cold-causing viruses: respiratory droplets shared by infected people sneezing or coughing, touching the hands or face of an infected person, and touching surfaces shared with infected people, such as door handles, computer keyboards, phones and other public handles or surfaces.
The coronavirus causes upper respiratory infection and symptoms, which typically include a cough, sore throat, runny nose and fever. In most instances, it’s difficult to tell whether you have a coronavirus or a typical cold-causing virus, known as a rhinovirus. However, if a coronavirus infection gets into your lungs and lower respiratory tract, it can cause pneumonia, which can be particularly serious in the elderly or those with weakened immune systems.
Only through throat or nose cultures and blood tests can doctors tell exactly which virus is causing a patient’s symptoms. That’s why testing potential carriers for coronavirus is a laborious and slow process.
Where did the 2019 Novel Coronavirus come from?
It’s not often that a coronavirus infects both animals and people, but this new strain of coronavirus seems capable of doing just that. That makes a total of 7 coronaviruses that can infect humans—four of which just result in a common cold.
While there isn’t an exact answer as to where this new coronavirus came from, scientists believe the strain of coronavirus causing the current global outbreak came from either a snake or a bat. The first infections were seen in people who frequented a Wuhan, China wholesale seafood market that sold live animals.
A study published in The Lancet on January 30 indicates that while bats were likely the species in which the infection originated, it may have had a secondary intermediary that passed it to humans, and that intermediary animal could have been a snake.
Have there been other coronavirus scares?
Yes. Remember SARS? It was “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome,” a flu-like outbreak that started in 2003 and killed 774 people—about one of every 10 people it infected. It originated in southern China’s Guangdong district and spread to 37 countries, infecting 8,000 people. There have been no reported cases of SARS since 2004.
More recently, there was “MERS”, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. It originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and spread to other countries within the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Europe. In 2014 there were two cases in the US—both were healthcare workers who had lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and both recovered. Overall there were 2,500 confirmed cases of MERS that killed 858 people—about 3 out of every 10 patients who contracted it.
Putting Coronavirus into perspective: Past US Outbreaks
It’s scary when there’s a global outbreak of a new disease, and precautions such as washing hands thoroughly and avoiding contact with people who are actively coughing, sneezing or feverish are wise.
But let’s look at data from past outbreaks to put the current coronavirus into perspective:
- In 1793, Yellow Fever, a virus from the Caribbean spread by mosquitoes, killed 5,000 Americans in the Philadelphia area. A vaccine was developed in 1935.
- From 1906-1907, Typhoid Fever (brought to New York by Mary Mallon, known as Typhoid Mary) killed more than 21,000 people. A vaccine was developed in 1911.
- In 1918, the Spanish Flu killed approximately 675,000 Americans.
- In 1957, the Asian Flu killed nearly 70,000 people before a vaccine was formulated. The first flu vaccine was developed in 1942, but because the flu virus mutates each year, new strains of vaccine are continuously being formulated.
- In 2018-2019, approximately 41.3 million people in the US contracted the flu—a particularly severe strain—and as many as 57,000 people died.
What can you do about the Novel Coronavirus? Stay informed.
As of February 10, 2020, more than 41,000 people have been diagnosed with Novel Coronavirus, and certainly, more cases will be diagnosed before the virus is contained. The total number of US cases on February 10, 2020 was 12.
Of the 41,000 people diagnosed with the disease, about 900 have died from complications caused by coronavirus. If those numbers are correct, they indicate a mortality rate from infection of around 2.2%, or approximately 1 of every 50 cases. However, calculating the mortality rate during an ongoing outbreak is tricky, and experts indicate that the actual mortality rate of Novel Coronavirus may be closer to 3%.
Stay informed about the outbreak by checking the Centers for Disease Control’s regularly updated information page about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. Johns Hopkins University is tracking the coronavirus outbreak by the number of cases in various countries.
The CDC’s goal is to respond quickly by confirming new cases and isolating those individuals to prevent the continued spread of the coronavirus in the US.