Right now, the media is having a Coronavirus field day. Cases of infection are spreading across the world, and broad media coverage (this site included) is fanning the public’s fears for clicks. It’s easy to get alarmed when constantly being bombarded with numbers out of context, so, in order to understand the situation better (and not spend money on an underground apocalypse bunker prematurely) we decided to gather some facts and compile this guide. Keep in mind that because this is a newly discovered virus, what we know about it is likely to change in the future. Here’s what we so know about Coronavirus so far.
What is it?
According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more serious conditions like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) (first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS- CoV) (first identified in China in 2003). When a new coronavirus infects humans for the first time, it’s called a novel coronavirus (nCoV).
These viruses get their name from the fact that, under a microscope, they resemble crowns (to those with good imaginations, anyway), and crown in Latin is “corona”.
In most cases, the symptoms of coronaviruses tend to be mild, but every now and then a type of coronavirus emerges that can cause severe disease, and that’s what we’re dealing with right now with the 2019 novel coronavirus.
Where did it come from?
Coronavirus are zoonotic, which means they’re transmitted from animals to humans. This happens either because of a mutation in the virus itself, or due to increased contact between the animal hosts and humans. WHO investigations found that SARS-CoV was transmitted to humans from civet cats, and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels, and there are several other known coronaviruses circulating in animals which have yet to hop the species barrier.
The longer a virus circulates in human populations the more mutations it develops, which differentiate strains among infected people. It’s not yet known exactly which species transmitted the recent nCoV-2019 (some suspect bats, but the evidence isn’t quite there yet), but because the genetic sequences analysed so far don’t differ by much from case to case, it seems it jumped to humans very recently.
This theory makes even more sense considering it was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, after a cluster of people came down with pneumonia. All of these people had been associated with a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan.
Conspiracy theorists have been having a great time with this one too. As human beings, we simply can’t seem to resist controversy and myth, but all the facts so far suggest that that the initial spillover into humans was caused either by a natural accident or a laboratory accident (hundreds of different coronaviruses have been studied for years, after all) and not by nefarious government activities or secret weapons development.
What does it look like?
Common signs, according to the WHO, include respiratory symptoms, fever, fatigue, a dry cough, and shortness of breath. In less common cases, patients reported muscle pain, diarrhoea and nausea. If the infection becomes more severe, it can result in pneumonia, kidney failure and even death.
Current estimates of the incubation period (the time between the actual infection and the onset of symptoms) is anything from one to fourteen days, though most people start experiencing symptoms after five or six. However, it is also possible for infected people to experience no symptoms at all, while still spreading the virus.
A study published in the Lancet medical journal in January identified what it called a “cytokine storm” in some patients who became critically ill. This severe immune reaction in which the body produces immune cells and proteins which have the potential destroy other organs, may account for the deaths in younger, fitter patients. Fortunately, it’s not very common.
How does it spread?
To determine how effectively a virus spreads from person to person, scientists have to calculate its “basic reproduction number”, often referred to as R0 (read R-nought). The R0 value is an estimate of how many people can be infected by a single carrier.
A study published at the end of January estimated the R0 value of 2019-nCoV to be 2.2, which means that each infected person spread the virus to another 2.2 people on average. For comparison, measles has an R0 value of 12 to 18, which is shockingly high (vaccination is important, everyone!). As a rule of thumb, a virus will continue to spread through human populations if the R0 value is greater than one.
The exact dynamics of how this particular virus can be transmitted is still under investigation, but in general, respiratory conditions like this and flu are spread through respiratory droplets after an infected person coughs or sneezes.
In addition, those who work in close proximity to live animals, or those who are caring for infected people are most at risk of infection. These include, amongst others, live animal market vendors and healthcare workers.
You can use this website to track the spread of the virus in real time.
How can it be prevented?
The best ways to limit the spread of coronavirus is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly (this means with soap and water, for at least twenty seconds. And don’t forget to include those wrists!), cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and cook all animal products thoroughly. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth especially when your hands are unwashed, and disinfect frequently touched objects (this probably includes your phone) often.
It’s advised that, if you do feel ill, you seek medical advice as soon as possible and if you’ve been travelling, you should inform your medical practitioner of this.
Contrary to popular belief, those surgical face masks that are selling out all over the world don’t do much to stop you catching the virus. You COULD get more heavy duty medical masks, but they’re highly uncomfortable and hard to breathe through. Not to mention, if THOSE start selling out all over the world too, it would pose a real problem for the medical practitioners on the front lines who really need them. In fact, the WHO recommends only using a face mask if you are displaying symptoms of the virus yourself, as it may lessen your chance of infecting others.
If you don’t usually wear a face mask to stop yourself from catching the flu, which kills tens of thousands every year in the US alone, then why bother to start wearing them now?
How is it diagnosed?
This virus can be diagnosed by a test called PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), which identifies its “genetic fingerprint”. These tests are highly sensitive if used correctly, but false negatives have been reported in situations where the tests were done in high-throughput settings under a lot of pressure.
This process involves screening for infection in bodily fluids like nasal secretions (by means of a swab test) and blood. They may also test the gunky stuff you spit up from your lungs if you’re displaying coughing as a symptom.
Can it be cured?
There is currently no medication for specifically for coronavirus, so it’s treated with with supportive care. Both treatment and vaccines are currently being developed, and officials are hoping to launch clinical trials for a potential vaccine within the next three months.
There is hope that this virus, like other respiratory viruses (the flu, for example) will be seasonal, and that the number of infections will start to drop as warmer weather approaches the countries that have been hardest hit. This may be overly optimistic, but only time will tell.
Should I be worried?
After analyzing the information from over 44,000 cases, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found an overall death rate of 2.3%.
Many of those patients who have become critically infected had underlying medical conditions like diabetes and hypertension, or were older. Patients who are 80 years and older seem to have a fatality rate of 14%, whereas patients aged 10-39 have thus far had a fatality rate of 0.2%, which is almost the same as the fatality rate of the flu (0.1% in the US). Some experts believe that since the actual number of coronavirus cases may be higher than what’s been reported, the fatality rate might even be slightly lower.
While the frequent media coverage (and often misinformation) makes it seem that this coronavirus is highly infectious, many experts state that it isn’t much more infectious than the flu. If it were, we’d have seen far more cases spreading across the world considering the fact that Wuhan is a major travel hub. The death rates for this particular virus are also lower than that of previous coronaviruses. MERS has a case fatality rate of over 30%, so if you weren’t in full panic mode about that one in 2012, you can relax a little more about this one.
So, long story short, you probably shouldn’t be working yourself up into a frenzy about this virus. If you’re a millennial, you fall into the category with the lowest fatality rate, so your biggest concern in case of infection should actually be to not spread the virus to anybody else who may have a compromised immune system.
Regardless, it’s horrible being sick, so of course you should do everything you can to keep yourself from catching it if you’re travelling to countries with cases of infection. Wash your hands well and often, and be mindful of the people around you. Keep calm and disinfect the surfaces around you where possible, but don’t let fear keep you from living your life. Rest assured, the team at Essential Millennial will be here to keep you informed of any further developments.
All information for this article was sourced from the following links:
- WHO resources:
- Al Jazeera resources:
- Other resources: