Is Coronavirus As Dangerous As It Sounds?
Coronavirus has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). So, is it time to panic?
Cold and flu season has been turned on its head with the news of the recent coronavirus outbreak. Originating in Wuhan, China in December 2019, this never-before-seen strain of coronavirus has now been detected globally in more than 17,000 confirmed cases across nearly two dozen countries, including China, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Australia, France, Italy, Canada, and even the U.S. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC has confirmed seven cases of coronavirus in the U.S., and as of Monday, multiple news outlets report that that number has risen to 11 confirmed cases. They all involve people who’d either recently traveled to and from Wuhan, or who'd been in close contact with someone who'd recently traveled to Wuhan, per the CDC.)
At least 361 people in China have died after becoming infected with this coronavirus strain (so far, only one overseas death has been reported in the Philippines), according to The New York Times. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that coronavirus is a global health emergency. The CDC has urged people to avoid traveling to China for the time being. Several major U.S. airports have also begun implementing enhanced health screenings for travelers coming in from China.
What is a coronavirus, exactly?
If "coronavirus" sounds like a new (and therefore, perhaps, scary) thing to you, know this: “Coronavirus” actually refers to a large group of viruses that can range from something as familiar as the common cold to something as serious as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Refresher: SARS is the infectious illness that quickly spread around the world in 2003, infecting almost 8,000 people and killing nearly 800 others.
In other words, coronaviruses themselves are nothing new. You’ve probably been infected with a coronavirus strain at some point in your life. But the strain involved in this particular outbreak is one that the medical community has never seen in humans. (Some context: Certain coronavirus strains can also infect dogs and cats—known as canine coronavirus and feline coronavirus, respectively—and cause short-lived intestinal discomfort and mild diarrhea. Coronavirus in dogs is relatively contagious among canines, but that strain of the virus can’t infect humans, according to VCA Animal Hospitals. The same goes for coronavirus in cats, reports WPEC CBS12 News.)
While the exact origin of this human coronavirus strain hasn’t been confirmed, it’s believed to have emerged from an animal source that may be linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, according to the CDC. That means the virus likely began spreading via animal-to-person contact. At this point, though, the virus appears to be spreading from person to person, notes the health agency. There are currently two cases in the U.S. involving person-to-person contamination of the coronavirus: One case was between a Chicago woman who brought the infection from Wuhan, and her spouse (the spouse had not traveled to China), according to CNBC. The other case involves a California man who'd recently traveled to Wuhan and subsequently infected his wife (who had not traveled to Wuhan), per San Benito County's Health and Human Services agency. (Related: The Step-By-Step Stages of a Cold—Plus How to Recover Fast)
"The novel coronavirus is spreading rapidly at this moment," says Jonas Nilsen, M.D., co-founder of Practio, a UK-based travel vaccination service. "It took almost five months for SARS to spread to 3,000 people, while the novel coronavirus infected [over] 3,000 people in just 28 days."
Is the coronavirus contagious?
The short answer: yes.
"Like other coronaviruses, [this strain] probably spreads by coughing and sneezing and by contact with infected fluids (mucus, sputum, feces) that are left on a surface, like a hand or table," says Lewis Kohl, D.O., chief medical information officer, and senior medical director at CareMount Medical.
That said, it’s too early to speculate just how contagious this coronavirus strain is, adds Dr. Kohl. For example, "it’s estimated that each person who contracted SARS infected 2-3 other people, but we don’t know yet if the Wuhan virus will behave the same way," he explains. (Related: How Long Is a Cold Contagious?)
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
The most common reported symptoms of this coronavirus strain include fever, cough, and shortness of breath, according to the CDC. These symptoms typically begin to appear between 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. However, some infected people have shown no visible symptoms of coronavirus, while others have quickly become severely ill; more than 300 have died after becoming infected, per the health agency. At this time, it’s unclear whether someone who shows no symptoms of coronavirus is still contagious, notes the CDC.
Wait, so what's the difference between the coronavirus and the flu or the common cold?
It’s true that coronavirus symptoms more or less resemble those associated with a common cold or the flu, says Dr. Nilsen. And, much like the cold or flu, coronavirus can be diagnosed via lab tests ordered by your doctor, according to the CDC. However, the important difference between coronavirus and the flu or common cold is that people infected with this coronavirus strain appear to be more likely to suffer significant, potentially deadly respiratory distress (read: pneumonia), compared to people infected with other coronavirus strains, other common cold viruses, or even the flu, he explains. (Refresher: Here's the difference between cold and flu.)
Also concerning: Research suggests this coronavirus may be genetically close to SARS, says Eyal Leshem, M.D., director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center in Israel. “Because SARS infections have a 10 percent mortality risk, this genetic resemblance is alarming,” he notes.
For context, despite the especially-severe flu seasons seen in recent years, the mortality rate for the flu is still around 0.1 percent, based on last year’s CDC flu data. The Spanish Flu of 1918—the most severe pandemic in recent history that killed roughly 500 million people around the world—had a 2.5 percent mortality rate. As for this new coronavirus strain, some estimates are claiming the mortality risk could be as high as 3 percent for those who become infected. Don’t panic, though: This could be an overestimate given there’s probably a large number of infected people who don't have severe enough symptoms to warrant a hospital visit (meaning their data isn’t being taken into account when calculating the mortality risk), reports The Guardian. And yes, this could mean some people are walking around with the infection and unknowingly spreading the virus. Regardless, though, it's still too soon to estimate an accurate mortality risk for this coronavirus strain—not to mention that, again, it's still unclear whether people who don't show symptoms of this coronavirus are still contagious.
Also, once a person becomes infected, recovery basically depends on the strength of the person’s immune system. That means extremely young and elderly people, along with people with weakened immune systems, are most at risk for severe complications from this coronavirus.
How to Protect Yourself from Coronavirus
There’s currently no vaccine for this novel coronavirus, nor are there specific treatments for this strain of the virus (current treatments only offer symptomatic relief), according to the CDC. But take a deep breath. Even though the coronavirus is in nearly every headline you read these days, you don't need to lose sleep over it. In fact, the flu is technically the most “deadly” illness to worry about right now, considering the mortality rates.
“Remember, the flu can kill,” says Dr. Kohl. “That’s what makes picking up these new diseases so tricky, particularly during cold and flu season. They look the same. That’s why we have to be watchful about where patients have traveled and who they have been exposed to.”
With that in mind, protecting yourself from coronavirus basically looks the same as protecting yourself from the flu or a common cold: Get the flu shot; wash your hands often; try not to touch your eyes, mouth, and nose; avoid people who are sick; exercise; stay hydrated and well-fed; and if you’re sick, stay home, stresses Dr. Kohl. (Also, you probably don’t need to wear a surgical mask to protect yourself from coronavirus.)
Additionally, respect the CDC’s travel restrictions until further notice. Remember: Coronavirus prevention isn't just about protecting yourself. It's also about containing the risk of widespread contamination and keeping everyone safe. And if you do suspect you have the virus, the CDC recommends contacting your doc immediately so you can get tested and, if needed, get the proper treatment ASAP.