COVID-19: What you need to know

The Wuhan coronavirus under the microscope. Source: Flickr/Ben (busy)

Coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, has so far led to the deaths of more than 1400 people in China and infected another 64,300 in China and worldwide. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned the outbreak could end up creating a “global threat worse than terrorism“.

What is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a broad family of viruses that cause respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, and are mostly found in animals.

Before the recent outbreak of Covid-19, there were six coronaviruses ever found in humans, which included the common cold and the SARS CoV, which caused the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2002-2003. People often get infected by common cough and cold as a result of the common form of coronavirus present, but Covid-19 has proven particularly contagious and can be fatal in a short span of time as it comes from animals and we have little immunity against it.

When and where did it start?

In early December, Chinese authorities had identified a new type of viral pneumonia with symptoms of coughing, high fever and difficulty in breathing. By the end of December 2019, health authorities confirmed 27 cases of viral pneumonia, stating the cause to be “unclear”.

Most of the deaths and infections have occurred in China. Source: pixabay

It was confirmed at the beginning of January that the virus originated from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, a major transport hub for 11 million people in the Hubei province of China. The market, which has a mixture of live animals and meat products, was then shut and investigated. It was involved in the selling of wildlife, some of them illegal. According to the AFP global news agency, it included exotic animals and birds like hedgehogs, salamanders and peacocks among 112 exotic species.

Does Covid-19 come from bats?

DNA evidence suggests that the new virus is likely related to bats, which was also the case in the 2002 SARS outbreak. However, the Chinese State Media has reported unconfirmed evidence that strains of the virus were found by Chinese scientists in pangolins, the world’s most illegally trafficked species.

How does it differ from SARS and flu?

The coronavirus outbreak is part of a larger global pattern. Other outbreaks like SARS, Ebola and measles were also directly related to animals.

The SARS outbreak took place in 2002-2003, with 8098 cases in a nine months period, only 10 per cent of which were fatal.

The swine flu pandemic of 2009 killed about 285,000 people worldwide. It was, however, comparatively less to the number of seasonal flu deaths each year, which reaches from 200,000 to more than 600,000 annually.

The major difference between flu and coronavirus is our immunity and ability to fight off the infection. We have developed certain immunity to the flu, but not to Covid-19.

However, Professor Tania Sorell from the University of Sydney told the ABC that if the virus goes on for a long period, our community is likely to develop immunity to it.

What’s next?

Although Australian scientists were able to develop a lab-grown coronavirus in early February, a vaccine is likely to take 18 months to develop.

The WHO has advised the public that personal hygiene is the crucial step to prevent being infected by Covid-19.

Washing hands regularly with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub can help eliminate the virus if present. As it is transmitted by droplets, it is important to cover our mouth with a flexed elbow, tissue or mask. The virus can be left on surfaces and easily transferred from hands to mouth or eyes, infecting the new host. The general symptoms are similar to flu – cough, fever, sneezing and also diarrhoea.

Other general precautions like the use of N95 masks while in public can be really helpful. There has been a shortage of masks in chemists and other stores in Sydney due to their rising demand.

For live updates on the coronavirus cases and deaths, you can rely on Corona Tracker – a community-based project powered by 460 volunteers across the globe, including data scientists, medical professionals and the general public.