By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
With the new strain of coronavirus — COVID-19 — hitting more than 2,000 in death toll and tens of thousands affected worldwide, much is still unknown by the general public about how the epidemic has spread.
The COVID-19 is thought to have originated in 2019 at a market in Wuhan, China, and has spread throughout mainland China and a number of other countries.
As of mid-February, confirmed cases are more than 70,000 in countries that include China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, Tawaiian, Australia, Germany, Vietnam, France, the United Kingdom and United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, human coronaviruses are common throughout the world. However, the 2019-nCoV virus is a public health concern because of the many unknown factors and the fact that there is more than just one form of the virus.
Physician John A. Sellick, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at University at Buffalo, talks about five things you need to know about the virus.
1. There are multiple coronaviruses
The various coronaviruses can infect people and make them sick. Some human coronaviruses — not the new strain — were identified many years ago. Human coronaviruses commonly cause mild to moderate illness in people worldwide.
“It is a very common group of viruses that affect humans and have existed before in epidemics such as SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus,” said Sellick. “There are viruses that have affected animals and when they start affecting humans because our bodies don’t have the same immunity, these new viruses can have serious outcomes. That is why it is called the novel coronavirus because it is new.”
2. Coronaviruses are most commonly passed from person to person
Most often the virus is spread from person to person among close contacts about six feet away. It occurs mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread.
“This is why we tell people that you should use the same common practices you have when you have a cold. You cover your mouth because you can spread large droplets to other people,” said Sellick. “It is those microscopic viruses that you can also spread through your fingers if you are infected when you rub your eyes and it can go through your ducts that go through your nasal passages.”
3. Coronavirus is less than a threat in the U.S. than the flu
Flu vaccines are updated to better match viruses expected to be circulating in the United States. The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness. Serious outcomes of flu infection can result in hospitalization or death. Some people, such as older people, young children and people with certain health conditions, are at high risk of serious flu complications.
“Influenza has a higher mortality rate and we have to make sure we don’t ignore the seriousness of it just because everyone is talking about the coronavirus,” said Sellick. ”Last year the flu virus was affecting people all the way through the summer.”
4. People should remain calm in the United States
The Chinese government has mobilized many resources for containment and treatment. They have sent more than 10,000 medical workers, including military doctors, to Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital and where the population has been hit hardest by the virus. The government has already spent $4.5 billion to handle the outbreak.
“I believe people have been calmer in the United States than when they hear about outbreaks happening worldwide. I think people have done a good job educating themselves on the situation and understand that the number of cases in the United States is minimal,” said Sellick. “What is still unknown is if the measures that China enacted to quarantine people so that it wouldn’t spread worked or not.”
5. There is no vaccine
There are no approved drugs or vaccines to specifically treat or prevent 2019-nCoV infection or disease. Medical experts do offer some suggestions, which include washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, experts advise the use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
“The virus is fairly small and its genetic code has already been created so we will not be able to make a vaccine for it for a couple of years,” said Sellick. “So that means there is no vaccine that can help currently with this outbreak which is why the death toll and affected numbers are growing rapidly.”
Bats, Snakes May Be the Source of New Coronavirus
A study published Jan. 30 in The Lancet, finds strong evidence that bats are where the infection actually originated.
According to study authors, the infection could still have been passed to humans through an intermediary animal. A previous study theorized that it went through snakes before being passed on to humans.
“Although our phylogenetic analysis suggests that bats might be the original host of this virus, an animal sold at the seafood market in Wuhan might represent an intermediate host facilitating the emergence of the virus in humans,” wrote the study authors.
Bats have an unfortunate history of passing potentially deadly pathogens to human hosts.
A 2017 article in Nature explains how virologists identified a single population of horseshoe bats harboring virus strains with all the genetic building blocks of the SARS virus that jumped to humans in 2002. That worldwide outbreak killed almost 800 people.
Research published in Emerging Infectious Diseases confirms that many African bats are also reservoirs of the incredibly dangerous Ebola virus.