In January 2020, health workers discovered a novel coronavirus spreading from Wuhan, China. Eventually named COVID-19, the progress of the virus prompted a worldwide scramble for containment and treatment. Here is everything that you need to know about COVID-19 coronavirus.
Tallies of people infected with COVID-19 grew rapidly, and though in 80 percent of cases the effects of the Coronavirus are considered mild, there are still instances of serious complications and deaths.
China took drastic action, quickly enacting the largest quarantine in human history when it locked down the Hubei province. But even that may have been too little too late—COVID-19 had spread out of China, with cases occurring up in countries around the world by mid- to late-January.
The next big outbreaks of COVID-19 occurred outside of China, with Italy, Iran and South Korea becoming the next epicentres of coronavirus infection. The World Health Organisation declared Europe the new epicentre of COVID-19 as of 13th March, and accordingly countries began to spring into action, locking down borders, travel, and large gatherings and encouraging citizens to self-isolate.
It doesn’t seem that it will be possible to stop the international spread of coronavirus, so governments and researchers are now concentrating on delaying the peak of the outbreak to the summer months, when health services will be better able to cope.
First described in detail in the 1960s, the coronavirus gets its name from a distinctive corona or ‘crown’ of sugary proteins that project from the envelope surrounding the nucleus. The virus’s make-up is encoded in the longest genome of any RNA-based virus—a single strand of nucleic acid roughly 26,000 to 32,000 base-pairs long.
There are four known genuses in the family, named Alphacoronavirus, Betacoronavirus, Gammacoronavirus, and Deltacoronavirus. The first two infect mammals, including bats, pigs, cats and humans. Gammacoronavirus mostly infects birds such as poultry, while Deltacoronavirus can infect both birds and mammals.
Coronaviruses make up a large family of viruses that can infect birds and mammals. Including the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, there are five coronaviruses currently circulating in humans.
Tell me about the other coronaviruses
Coronaviruses make up a large family of viruses that can infect birds and mammals. Currently, there are five coronaviruses circulating in human—the one that began circulating in January joining four others, including OC43 and 229E that were discovered in the 1960s as well as HKU1 and NL63 that were discovered after the 2003-2004 SARS outbreak. It’s not known how long these viruses had existed in people before scientists noticed.
SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) was caused by a coronavirus known as SARS-CoV, but after two outbreaks in 2002 and 2004, there have been no known cases.
The four current coronaviruses are responsible for an estimated 25 percent of all colds, with OC43 and 229E more occurring more often than the others. While all four coronaviruses can cause pneumonia and sometimes death, this is rare enough that good studies on the matter aren’t available.
In one of the few studies on strains of coronavirus, researchers measured the infection rates of OC43 and 229E during four winters (1999-2003) in Rochester, New York, among some 3,000 participants, including healthy outpatients, adults with cardiopulmonary disease and patients hospitalised with acute respiratory illnesses.
The study found that among healthy patients, the most common symptoms were a runny nose, cough and congestion lasting about 10 days. No one in the study even ran a fever.
“For the most part, they cause common-cold-type symptoms,” said Richard Webby, an influenza expert at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “Maybe that is the most likely end scenario if this thing becomes entrenched.”
For up to date information about coronavirus cases in the UK, check out this map created by Public Health England.
COVID-19 tends to have serious implications only for people with underlying health issues such as respiratory or immune system problems. Intensive care such as the use of respirators is required for 15 percent of those infected with OC43 and 229E, and about one-third of the patients admitted to hospital with these infections develop pneumonia. In surveys it was found that one of the 229E patients and two of the OC43 patients died.
For the most part, [coronaviruses] cause common-cold type symptoms.– Richard Webby, influenza expert at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
Vaccine on the way
Drug makers in the US have announced the first human trials of a vaccine to counter the COVID-19 coronavirus. It could take a year and great deal of expenditure for this to be widely available, though, and will require some incentive for pharmaceutical companies to invest time and money.
However, if coronaviruses begin to infect enough people regularly, there will be a greater business incentive to develop a vaccine and other countermeasures.
By the numbers
The WHO currently estimates that the fatality rate of COVID-19 is 3.4 percent. Earlier estimates put the rate at two percent. It’s possible that both are overestimates, since mild cases of the disease may not be counted.
However, no one knows for sure, as it’s hard to get an accurate estimate during an evolving outbreak. In countries that have taken drastic measures to quarantine and isolate their citizens, it appears that the fatality rate is less than two percent, perhaps because the health system is more efficient.
Here’s how those numbers stack up against other illnesses:
- The seasonal flu has a 0.1% fatality rate
- 1917 Spanish influenza had a 2.5% fatality rate
- SARS had a 10% fatality rate
- MERS had a 37% fatality rate
- Ebola has a 50% fatality rate
It’s possible that COVID-19 becomes a fifth community-acquired coronavirus, eventually settling down to something like the other four already circulating. However, the other possibility is that it follows the pattern of the seasonal flu.
Viruses can’t tolerate high heat and humidity, which is why infections are less prevalent in warmer, humid months. If the new COVID-19 coronavirus follows this pattern, the containment efforts plus the arrival of summer could drive infections to near zero (though see here).
Depending on how the COVID-19 coronavirus mutates, it may become a seasonal flu-like phenomenon. “There is some evidence that people can be re-infected with the four coronaviruses and that there is no long-lasting immunity,” Dr Susan Kline, an infectious disease specialist at of the University of Minnesota. “Like rhinoviruses [which cause the common cold], you could be infected multiple times over your life. You can mount an antibody response, but it wanes, so on subsequent exposure you don’t have protection.” Subsequent infections often produce milder illness, however.
Time alone will tell if the current COVID-19 coronavirus scare turns into a recurring health problem, or, like other heavily covered outbreaks before it, it quickly becomes just another in a series.
If you are worried about COVID-19 coronavirus, here’s the NHS advice.
If you have travelled from China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Macau, Italy or Iran to the UK in the last 14 days you should immediately:
- Stay indoors and avoid contact with other people as you would with the flu.
- Call NHS 111 to inform them of your recent travel to the area.
- In Scotland phone your GP or NHS 24 on 111 out of hours. If you are in Northern Ireland, call 0300 200 7885.
- Report any symptoms such as cough, fever or shortness of breath.
- Do not use public transport or taxis until 14 days after your return.
- Where possible, contact a friend, family member or delivery services to carry out errands on your behalf or to take children to school.
- Follow this advice even if you do not have symptoms of the virus.
COVID-19 Dos and don’ts
- Wash your hands with soap and water often – do this for at least 20 seconds
- Always wash your hands when you get home or into work
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze
- Put used tissues in the bin straight away and wash your hands afterwards
- Try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell
- Rely on face masks – they’re unlikely to block a virus and can give you a false sense of security
- Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean
We are going to add articles and add to this one on COVID-19 coronavirus as the information changes or is updated so that you get everything you need to know, keeping to the facts and without creating unnecessary fear.