A novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has been making it’s way around the world since first appearing in Wuhan, China late in 2019. The virus has blasted through containment measures, infecting more than 100,000 people across 70 countries so far.
In this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about the coronavirus in order to prepare and protect yourself.
A coronavirus is a specific family of viruses, so named because its outer coating looks like a crown when viewed under an electron microscope. Many coronaviruses don’t infect humans, and those that do are often not that serious – the common cold is the most common example of a coronavirus infection. However, there are also a handful of more serious and deadly coronaviruses that have caused outbreaks in the past. For example, SARS and MERS are caused by two different coronaviruses.
The coronavirus that is rapidly spreading around the world right now is known as COVID-19. That’s short for Coronavirus Disease 2019, since the virus was first discovered in 2019.
The origins of COVID-2019 remain relatively unknown. Scientists think that the virus may have been circulating in the bat population, since the DNA of the virus is similar to coronavirus strains that have previously been found in bats. But, those similar bat viruses have not been able to jump from bats to humans, so it’s likely that one or more different animals acted as an intermediate carrier of COVID-2019.
Despite rumors that the coronavirus was created in a lab, there is absolutely no evidence for such an origin. The virus’s genetic makeup closely mirrors that of coronaviruses found in the wild, suggesting that it is simply a variation on coronaviruses that have never infected humans.
The COVID-2019 outbreak began in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. It’s thought to have started at a market for wild animals in the city, which is consistent with the idea of an intermediate animal transferring the virus from bats to humans. Although China quarantined the entire city of 11 million people, cases appeared in other parts of China within a few weeks.
Japan and Thailand were the first two countries to report cases of COVID-2019 outside of China, in early January 2020. By early March, the virus had spread to more than 70 countries around the world, with especially large numbers of cases in China, Iran, Italy, South Korea, and Japan. The first US case was identified in the Seattle, Washington area, but cases have since been identified in more than 25 states.
What are the Symptoms and How is the Disease Spread?
The symptoms of COVID-2019 are best describes as flu-like symptoms. Most commonly, the virus causes coughing, fever, tiredness, and shortness of breath. In particularly bad cases, the virus can infect the lungs and lead to viral pneumonia. If that happens, the coughing and shortness of breath can get significantly worse and the virus can severely impact the ability to breathe.
The virus is thought to primarily spread from person to person through direct and indirect contact. You can get the coronavirus by coming into close proximity to an infected person who is coughing or sneezing, since aerosolized droplets can land in your nose or mouth and be inhaled into the lungs.
It’s also thought that the virus spreads through infected surfaces – that is, an infected person coughs or sneezes on a surface, and the droplets are later picked up by another person. However, this is thought to be a far less prevalent mode of transmission.
Scientists think that the virus is mostly spread by people who are showing symptoms. However, evidence points to the fact that even people who are infected but are not showing symptoms can spread the virus. The incubation period – the time from infection to when symptoms show – is generally around 5 days, but it may be as few as 2 days or as long as 14 days.
Right now, COVID-19 seems to be spreading rapidly and sustainably in most areas of the world. That means that the rate of infection is increasing, rather than leveling off or decreasing, as it moves through previously uninfected communities.
Where Have Cases Been Reported?
Although the coronavirus outbreak began in a single city in China, it has spread around the world in a matter of months. As of early March, more than 70 countries have reported cases.
The brunt of confirmed COVID-19 cases are still in China, where there are more than 80,000 cases of the virus. South Korea is the second-most affected country with an estimated 6,500 cases. Italy and Iran each have between 4,500 and 5,000 cases, while Japan has around 1,000 cases. The virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica, with cases being reported in Australia and New Zealand; Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, and South Africa; and Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.
The US, too, has more than 200 cases in 26 states across the country. The majority of US cases are in Washington state, California, and New York.
How Deadly Is It?
As of early March, around 100,000 people around the world have been infected with COVID-19 and 3,835 have died. That’s a mortality rate of 3.4%, which is extremely high. For reference, the mortality rate of the seasonal flu is around 0.1%.
However, the 3.4% mortality rate is likely a high overestimate. The vast majority – around 80% – of coronavirus infections are thought to be mild, and people with mild infections are not getting tested in many countries around the world. So, while at least 3,835 people have died from the virus, the total number of infections may be in the several hundreds of thousands.
Strong evidence for a lower mortality rate than what’s been estimated so far comes from South Korea. That country has tested more than 140,000 people for the infection, so its estimate of the total number of cases is much more likely to be accurate than in other countries around the world. Based on that testing, South Korea has observed a mortality rate of just 0.6% – still high, but much less deadly than the current global estimate.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the mortality rate differs by demographic. Most of the COVID-19 deaths that have occurred have been concentrated among the elderly or people with underlying health conditions. The US, for example, has seen a 6% mortality rate from the virus in large part because an outbreak occurred inside a nursing home, where the population is very vulnerable to the virus’s effects.
What is Being Done to Stop the Virus from Spreading?
Right now, there’s no vaccine or treatment for the virus. So, the only option that health authorities have to limit its spread is to quarantine infected individuals and to encourage the public to take proper precautions.
Many countries have limited travel between their own airports and those in infected countries, in order to limit the global spread of the coronavirus. In addition, a large number of cities and towns have cancelled events and meetings. An increasing number of workplaces are also expected to allow employees to work remotely, in order to reduce the likelihood of person to person spread. It remains to be seen whether schools will close on a large scale in order to keep kids home.
Self-quarantine will also become increasingly important as the virus begins to spread in the US. Health authorities have encouraged good health practices to limit the spread of the virus. But, ultimately, there may be a level of disruption to day-to-day activities required to stop the virus from transmitting further.
How Do You Protect Yourself from COVID-2019?
There are a couple things that health experts recommend you can do to protect yourself from COVID-2019.
First, wash your hands. Use soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going into public places or after coughing or sneezing. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to clean your hands.
Along the same lines, avoid touching your face. The main routes that the virus takes to enter your body are through your nose, mouth, and eyes. By limiting the amount of contact your hands have with your face, you limit the chances that you inadvertently spread the virus from a surface to yourself.
Of course, avoid close contact with people who are sick. This may mean limiting the amount of time you spend in large, public gatherings, although the CDC has not yet issued warnings against this.
If you are healthy, do not use a face mask to protect yourself from the virus. Face masks do not protect healthy individuals from catching COVID-19, but using them for this purpose limits the ability of health workers to get the masks they need for safety.
COVID-19 vs. SARS and MERS
COVID-19 is the latest in a series of severe coronavirus outbreaks that have caused a large number of fatalities. Let’s take a look at how COVID-19 compares to two other coronavirus outbreaks – SARS and MERS.
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) broke out in Guangdong, China, in 2002. This was another coronavirus carried by bats, which is thought to have been transmitted to humans with civet cats as an intermediate carrier. The symptoms of SARS looked much like COVID-19 – fever, cough, and shortness of breath were the primary effects of the virus. But, the mortality rate was significantly higher, at 9.6%. By the end of the outbreak in 2003, around 8,098 people had been infected and 774 were killed. Since 2004, there have been no reported cases of SARS.
MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is a more recent coronavirus outbreak that began in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Bats are once again the reservoir of the virus, but in this case it was passed to humans by dromedary camels. It causes fever, cough, and shortness of breath, but the symptoms are so severe that the mortality rate is a staggering 34.4%. Since 2012, around 2,494 people have been infected with MERS and 858 have died. The virus spread to 27 countries at the peak of the initial outbreak, and occasional local outbreaks still occur.
COVID-19 is less deadly than either of these past coronaviruses, with an estimated mortality rate of 3.4%. But, it has already dwarfed those outbreaks by infecting more than 100,000 people around the world. The number of people killed, 3,835 already, is also far higher than from either SARS or MERS. The virus remains uncontained, so the number of infections and deaths is likely to continue increasing.
COVID-19 is a very infectious coronavirus that has proven fatal to thousands of people with underlying health conditions, as well as some otherwise healthy individuals. While the official global estimate of the virus’s mortality rate is 3.4%, this is likely an overestimate since the majority of cases are mild and are not tested for.
As of March 2020, the virus continues to spread largely unchecked in countries around the world. So, the number of cases may climb into the several hundreds of thousands if there is not a change of course.