What is the Coronavirus and how did it start?
As a broader group, viruses are pathogenic agents that infect animals and humans by entering cells within the body to hijack our own DNA so they can replicate and spread further. This process can lead to dysfunction and death of cells within the body, which (alongside our body’s immune response) results in the symptoms we experience from a viral infection.
Coronaviruses are a specific family of virus already well established as infective agents in animals and humans. There are many different forms and as a family of viruses it’s a large one. Most Coronavirus types affect animals only, however, rarely, genetic mutations allow viruses to ‘jump’ to humans. The viruses responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) - both of which can cause severe infection and pneumonias - are forms of Coronavirus.
Many people will likely have been infected with a Coronavirus at some point in their lives, and the vast majority will only experience mild to moderate cold/flu-like symptoms.
The majority of these cause illness such as the common cold, chest infections and other respiratory illnesses. In severe cases however Coronavirus infections can lead to significant pneumonia, acute respiratory shut down, organ damage and even death.
The recent outbreak of Coronavirus in China has emerged as a novel or new form of Coronavirus that we haven’t seen before, with reports emerging on December 31 2019 of chest infections occurring in the Wuhan City, Hubei Province, in China from an unknown source. At the moment this strain has been labelled ‘2019-CoV’. As the outbreak has happened so recently, specifics about what the virus is, how it formed and how it spreads are still coming to light. Researchers and The World Health Organisation (WHO) are actively investigating, and releasing updated information as it comes to light.
The exact source of the new virus is still unclear, but it appears most likely to have come from an animal source. Very recent research shows that it might have been transmitted from snakes. Ongoing investigation into how and where the virus formed is still underway, however.
Have we had the Coronavirus before?
Yes, many of us will actually have been infected with some form of Coronavirus at some stage. Coronaviruses are common among animals, and the majority of these can’t cross-infect or transmit to humans. There are a number of forms however that do infect us humans, and circulate between people. Most cause mild to moderate symptoms of the common cold, but can cause pneumonia (chest infections), Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) or (in severe cases) death. These viruses tend to hit those at risk from respiratory illness and complications of viral illness most - this can include the very young or very elderly, those with compromised immune systems and those with pre-existing lung conditions.
As with any form of new or novel virus however, this most recent strain of Coronavirus is one we haven’t seen before. It’s thus unclear how exactly it might spread, the effects it might have on the body and how significant infections might be. When new strains of virus hit that our bodies haven’t been exposed to before, concern arises as our immune systems might not yet have mounted defences to these new forms and spread can potentially be rapid.
What are the symptoms of the Coronavirus that is currently spreading in China?
Starting with those infected by the virus in Wuhan, China, it appears that most cases have caused symptoms like the common cold such as fatigue, cough, runny nose and generally feeling ill. From the information we currently have, it looks like most infected with the virus have only suffered mild to moderate cold-like symptoms.
Current information shows too however that infection with this new form of Coronavirus can result in severe chest infections with fever, severe cough and difficulty breathing. With severe cases, acute respiratory distress (inability to breath), organ failure and even death appear to have occurred.
Those with risk factors for being hit hard by respiratory and viral infections are likely to be most at risk from severe effects. This includes those with lowered immunity or severe medical conditions, those with pre-existing lung conditions, and potentially the very young or old.
Is the virus contagious? How can the virus be spread from human to human?
It’s most likely this novel form first spread from animals to humans, and that this is the main mode of transmission. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has outlined that there are cases of the virus spreading between people, but less so at this stage. For viruses to be significantly contagious (i.e. to cause pandemics), then fast and easy human to human spread is needed - investigations are still ongoing but current information doesn’t show this is yet the case with the new Coronavirus compared to some we’ve seen before (i.e. SARS).
As the Coronavirus is largely a respiratory (airways and lung) virus, spread from human to human is most likely to occur from respiratory droplets present in the air when we cough or sneeze. Close personal contact such as kissing, hugging or shaking hands could lead to transmission too, as could contact with surfaces or objects that have been contaminated (i.e. sneezed on). More rarely the virus could potentially be spread via human faeces according to The CDC. With regard to spread from animal sources, unprotected contact with live or dead infected animals, surfaces/areas contaminated by infected animals or raw/uncooked meat could be means of spread.
Is there a vaccine out?
As of yet there is no specific vaccine for this Coronavirus - however some limited reports outline that investigations to produce one and other potential treatments are underway.
How is the virus treated?
Treatment for Coronavirus is much the same as other viral infections, and depends on the symptoms present and the extent of illness. There is no specific treatment or medication for Coronavirus, and (as with all viral illnesses) antibiotics won’t kill these guys off.
Those with mild to moderate cold type symptoms are encouraged to rest and manage symptoms by simple measures (i.e. sleep, fluids, simple symptomatic relief), while limiting spread to others (i.e. staying home, hand hygiene, face mask). For those who experience chest infections or more severe consequences of infection, then supportive hospital treatment might be required. This can include anything from high-level symptom relief and supportive treatments for fever, breathing and other effects on the body. In severe cases where life-threatening effects from infection occur, individuals can require intensive care support within the hospital.
How worried should we be here in Australia?
Australia has seen 9 confirmed cases of the new Coronavirus as of January 31st, but current reports show that fears of wider spread within Australia are not presently held. Each of these cases have been traced to the Wuhan region, and health authorities here have already set up means to survey and monitor potential individuals suspected of infection, or entering Australia with the risk of infection, so it’s hoped cases here will be limited. At the moment, Australian authorities are encouraging that we not worry unduly and that risk of significant spread in Australia appears low risk at present.
The WHO has yet to issue any specific travel-related restrictions in relation to the virus, but the Centre for Disease Control has advised people not to travel to Wuhan City in China and there are travel restrictions in place in China itself. With high rates of travel expected with Chinese New Year approaching it is expected that further cases in other countries will likely arise.
For Coronavirus, it’s recommended that we practice hand hygiene by washing hands regularly with alcohol gel or soap and water for at least 20 seconds (especially if we’re prepping food, eating, have come into close contact with someone who might be unwell or we’re touching our mouth/eyes/nose). Always cough/sneeze into your elbow or a tissue rather than onto your hands or surfaces, and wash your hands straight after. For viruses spread by animals, avoiding unprotected contact with live or dead animals in areas of spread, preparing meat safely and cooking meat well is encouraged.
Lastly, if you’re worried that yourself or someone else might be displaying symptoms then avoiding places of potential spread (i.e. work, public transport) is a good way to limit spread to others. For any concerns, or significant symptoms like severe cough, fever or difficulty breathing then it’s important to seek advice and review with a doctor right away. This is especially if you have travelled to areas with known infection/cases recently, or have come into contact with someone who has.