In recent news, the outbreak of coronavirus has caused great concern across the globe with some cities on lockdown. So far we know that this virus has started in the city of Wuhan in China and originates in animals but is now being transmitted from human to human.
With the death toll rising and the virus spreading to other parts of the world, are we facing a global pandemic and should we be worried? We take a closer look at this new virus and what it means for public health.
What is coronavirus?
Coronavirus isn’t a new phenomenon, the term ‘coronavirus’ is used to describe a number of viruses in the same family, one of which is the common cold. This particular virus is a novel (new) virus that has recently been discovered, officially named the 2019-nCOV virus. The recent Novel Coronavirus is the seventh in this family of viruses and very little is known about it at this stage.
The ‘Wuhan virus’ has caused concern because of the very fact that we don’t know much about it and how it affects humans. It was first identified in China with a number of people being diagnosed with pneumonia, however, the virus responsible had not yet been discovered. The illnesses being reported were not linked to any existing viruses, which means the 2019-nCOV virus is a new discovery.
Where did this virus come from?
There are many strains of coronavirus in animals that have not yet infected humans, and it’s thought that this particular Wuhan virus originated in animals. Human infection has been linked to an animal market in Wuhan, but it’s now clear that the virus is spreading from human to human.
Coronavirus symptoms in humans
Coronaviruses are usually respiratory illnesses with symptoms manifesting in a cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties, and a fever. Although it’s now coming to light that people are becoming infected with this 'Chinese flu' without showing any symptoms. Symptomless illnesses are more difficult to catch and treat. Those who are infected but aren’t feeling unwell are less likely to seek help. So far, the incubation period is between 2 and 14 days which means symptoms may develop in as little as 2 days after exposure or up to 14 days after exposure. This poses problems for containing the virus because if a person is infected for 14 days without experiencing symptoms, this gives plenty of time for the virus to spread to anyone this person comes into contact with.
Given that the symptoms are very similar to other viruses such as colds and flu, it can be difficult to know whether the cause is the common cold, flu, or this potentially fatal virus, 2019-nCOV virus. In general, viruses can be difficult to treat compared to bacteria. Antibiotics cannot treat viruses, a lot of the time it’s down to your own immune system to fight off the viral infection.
Antiviral medicines are also used in some viral infections, particularly flu to help reduce the symptoms and the duration of the illness. Tamiflu is one antiviral medication that is prescribed to reduce the symptoms of flu or prevent infection if you may have been exposed to this virus. Vaccinations are also used to help prevent viral infections, however, currently, there are no vaccines for viruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which is another virus that originated in China and caused a pandemic between 2002 and 2004. SARS is very similar to this newly found coronavirus, and research for vaccines is ongoing for both.
How do you get Coronavirus?
Like a lot of coronaviruses, the 2019-nCOV virus is thought to spread from person to person through droplets in the air produced from coughing and sneezing. If a person comes into close contact with an infected person, or they touch surfaces that are covered in these droplets there is a risk they may also become infected. This is how most coronaviruses are spread between humans. It’s very rare that diseases are transmitted from animals to humans but this is thought to be the case in SARS, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), and this latest coronavirus.
How can we prevent being infected with the ‘Wuhan virus’, and how is it treated?
The advice for preventing the spread of the 2019-nCOV virus is similar to any other virus or disease, personal hygiene and handwashing is key as Dr Diana Gall explains:
"If you’re sick, especially with flu-like symptoms you should stay home and avoid close contact with other people. Covering your nose and mouth while sneezing and coughing with tissue is the minimum you should be doing.
You can help prevent catching or spreading the virus by washing your hands well and avoiding touching your nose, eyes, and mouth before washing your hands.
Those most at risk of the coronavirus are those already in poor health, similar to the typical flu. Unless you have recently been to China or been in contact with the virus, you should treat any symptoms as normal. You should only be visiting the hospital if you’re having chest pains, struggling to breathe, have a persistent cough, or feel extremely unwell."
At the moment there isn't a specific medicine or vaccine developed to treat this particular coronavirus, treatment currently involves reducing existing symptoms and supporting the functioning of vital organs.
Should we be worried?
As Dr. Gall explains, this coronavirus is likely to have more of an impact on those who are already ill or elderly, and this has been the case in those who have died from this virus. There aren't any cases reported in the UK and the risk is very low, as it stands the flu is more of a public health threat than this new coronavirus. There have been some fears about the infection being symptomless in some cases which makes it more difficult to establish exactly how many people are infected and how it is being transmitted, however, the virus isn't in a pandemic situation and the experts have reacted quickly to help stop the spread.