Jan 27, 2020 12:00 PM

Author: Libby Mitchell

China’s Coronavirus: Answers From an Expert

This information was accurate at the time of publication. Due to the changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, some information may have changed since the original publication date. More accurate information is now available.

An outbreak of a newly recognized coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan is making international headlines. Already hundreds of people have been sickened and more than 80 have died as a result of the illness. Additional coronavirus patients have been found in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

We have seen outbreaks like this involving newly emerged diseases like SARS, MERS, Zika and Swine flu. Is this one different? We sat down with Andrew Pavia, MD, the chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases for University of Utah Health who studies emerging infections to learn more.

What Is a Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large and diverse group of viruses that infect animals and humans, named after their crown-like appearance when viewed with an electron microscope. The greatest number of known coronaviruses infect animals, but until recently, six were known to infect humans. Four types tend to cause mild cold-like illness though more severe illness can occur.

The current outbreak that emerged in Wuhan is due to a previously unknown beta coronavirus. The closest known relative is another bat virus, which is moderately related to SARS virus. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) emerged in southern China and then spread to more than three dozen countries and sickened more than 800 people, killing 774. Previously SARS virus had not previously been known to infect humans.

How Is it Transmitted?

There is a lot we don’t yet know about the epidemiology of the current corona virus, also called 2019-nCoV disease, including many of the details about transmission. It is clear there is some person to person transmission. China reports that about 17 health care workers have become ill after caring for patients. It is worth pointing out that the health care workers may not have been taking appropriate protection measures such as wearing a mask, gloves and gown. All other coronaviruses are transmitted by “respiratory droplets,” which is direct contact with respiratory secretions or close exposure to droplets from coughing or sneezing.

What Are the Symptoms?

Patients infected with 2019-nCoV have have a cough and shortness of breath. Most have had a fever. Among hospitalized patients, chest X-rays often show pneumonia. There appears to be a range of symptoms, from quite mild to severe.

How Is This Outbreak Different From Other Outbreaks?

Every new emerging infection raises new questions and presents new challenges. In the early days, we still need answers to important questions: What is the range of severity? Who is at greatest risk of serious illness? How easy is it to transmit? Will the virus evolve over time?

In the longer term we want to know where the virus came from, and what changed that allowed it to spill over. We want to identify antiviral drugs to treat very ill patients and potentially develop a vaccine.

How Can People Avoid Becoming Ill?

At present, people who have not traveled to China, particularly Wuhan city or Hubei province, or have been in close contact with a person known to have the new virus are at very low risk. The same precautions that protect against catching and spreading influenza and other respiratory viruses are likely to be helpful for this respiratory virus. They include washing your hands regularly, avoid touching your nose and eyes, covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze, and don’t go to work when feeling ill.

What Should Someone So if They Become Ill?

This time of year, many viruses are circulating that cause cough and fever. Unless you have traveled to Wuhan or an area in China where 2019-nCoV you are extremely unlikely to be infected with the new coronavirus.

If you have a cough or difficulty breathing and a fever and you have traveled to Wuhan or been in close contact with a patient with a confirmed 2019-nCoV infection, you should call your doctor, clinic or emergency department before coming in.


This article is originally published on @theU

Libby Mitchell


coronavirus infectious disease

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