Your coronavirus questions answered

We are all aware of the new coronavirus by now. It’s all over the news, our news feeds and social media. With the emergence of a new disease there are a lot of unknowns and misinformation being flung around so, this will be a hopefully helpful breakdown about some of the things that we do know right now. I do believe, as usual, there is a lot of fear-mongering in the media, and I want to share more of the facts and why there is no need to panic. Of course, the situation varies in different countries around the world, but I wanted to make everyone aware of what sources everyone is getting their news from too.

Last week I asked on social media what questions you wanted answering about the coronavirus, and I have compiled your questions into these main questions ready to answer. If you have any more questions that are not covered here, then please, please ask them in the comments, or on social media, so we can help point you in the direction of some reliable sources.

Disclaimer: This is an ongoing outbreak, and I have done my best to include the most up to date information that I can. Some of the research is still in pre-print form, has not been peer-reviewed, and so may not be conclusive and may change.

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are actually a whole large family of viruses that can infect mammals and birds. They are named this way because of the spikes that cover them and look like a crown. Many of them cause mild infections and some cause the common cold for example. The SARS outbreak that you may remember happening back in 2002 is another member of this coronavirus family. This family of viruses therefore also contains these members that cause more severe respiratory infections and that includes 2019-nCov aka coronavirus. This 2019-nCov coronavirus is just a new member of this virus family that we had not identified before.

Update 12 Feb: 2019-nCov was not the official name of the latest coronavirus outbreak. That name of the virus has now been officially given and explains why you are now seeing it referred to as SARS-CoV-2, and the disease is being referred to as COVID-19. It is the same virus that they are talking about on the news, not another one.

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Where did it come from?

Back on 29 December 2019, four individuals in Wuhan, China went to hospital all with pneumonia. Those four individuals all also worked in the same seafood and live animal market – which seemed like too much of a coincidence. Like its family member SARS, infectious disease experts think that the coronavirus jumped from animals to humans – which is known as a zoonotic disease. Despite what you have seen in the media, the original animal source of the virus has not been identified. The genetic information of the virus was only released in mid-January 2020, so experts are still working on that. But it is highly likely to have originated from that market in Wuhan either by those individuals coming into close contact with those animals, or by consuming them or their products. Again, even though that is highly likely, it is not confirmed that this market was the source of the outbreak, and identifying the source probably isn’t the top priority right now.

Because this virus is likely to have come from animals to humans, that does not mean you can catch the virus from your pet. There is currently no evidence suggesting that either.

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How is the virus spreading?

There is evidence that the virus can be spread from human to human, but we don’t know how easy it is for the virus to do that yet. The R0 is the basic reproduction number which means how many people an infected individual can infect. This was originally estimated to be around 2. However, more recent estimates say it is between 4.5-6.5. So, one infected person is likely to infect between 4 and 7 (ish) people. For comparison, the flu has an R0 of 0.9-2.1, whereas chicken pox has an R0 of 10-12. These R0 estimates are almost exclusively on mathematical models, which don’t always represent the real world completely, and R0 by itself is not the only measure to give you the whole picture.

But this also tells you no information about how sick someone can get when infected. R0 is a measure of contagiousness not virulence, which is the ability to cause severe disease. Experts are worried about diseases with a high R0 because that indicates a fast spreading disease. And even if that disease has a low fatality rate, that would soon add up to a lot of deaths.

The latest estimates for this coronavirus say the fatality rate is about 3%. But this might not be truly accurate as there are likely to be many more unreported cases than we know about.

It is worth noting that it is still really unclear about how often infected individuals are presenting with really severe cases and how infectious the virus actually is. But the new coronavirus spreads primarily through physical contact with an infected person, or a contaminated surface before touching your mouth or nose, or through coughs and sneezes from an infected person.

What about it being airborne? This means that it can become aerosolised through coughs and sneezes to move a bit further through the air from the host. There is no evidence yet to suggest that this virus is airborne, but it was recently identified in faeces, which means the virus could be transmitted through infected people’s poop, which was the same for SARS again.

Can the virus be caught from infected people who aren’t showing any symptoms? Previous coronavirus outbreaks weren’t spread from asymptomatic carriers, but because of the longer incubation period of 2019-nCov, it is possible that carriers may be infectious. But based on currently available data, it is people with symptoms that are the main cause of the virus spread.

Update 12 Feb: A recent study that reported that people in Germany may have caught the virus from an asymptomatic carrier was flawed. Instead the infected individual had symptoms of feeling unwell, but symptoms that were not worth going to a doctor over, like a cough for example.

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What is a PHEIC and why has it been issued?

A PHEIC is a public health emergency of international concern. While it was the World Health Organisation (WHO) that issued this, the wording is still a little misleading in my opinion. This announcement about the coronavirus should clearly be taken seriously, but not quite so literally. It is clearly a much larger concern in China, compared to us here in the UK, or the US for example at the time of writing this. But the important thing to note is that the WHO issued this warning not for us all to panic, but so that we can implement preventative measures to restrict the spread of the virus, but also to protect countries whose healthcare systems are much less well-equipped than our own.

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Is the virus mutating?

It is worth noting that all viruses mutate, even our own DNA is under constant threat of random mutations. Some mutations will have good effects, some will have bad effects, and some mutations will have absolutely no effect whatsoever. Currently, there is no evidence of mutations in the virus that should be a concern. Although, all mutations could potentially affect the way the virus behaves.

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What can I do to protect myself?

Make sure you are washing your hands properly! That can be with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Make sure you are washing your hands after going to the loo, before eating food, after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose, after coming into contact with public surfaces like door handles and so on. If you can cough or sneeze into your elbow rather than on your hands that will help, and discard your tissues immediately. Make sure to not eat any uncooked or raw animal products too, and even getting a flu jab could help protect yourself.

If you are concerned, of course, get in touch with your doctor, or call NHS 111 in the UK for some medical advise. But make sure you are just being hygienic ultimately. Most of the things that will protect you fro flu, will also help to protect you from coronavirus. And FYI the flu is currently a much bigger deal in the UK and similar countries right now.

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Can we develop a vaccine for coronavirus?

Yes, and these efforts are already ongoing in the development and testing phases. Vaccine candidates are currently being tested in animal models, and are also on track to begin Phase I trials are still on schedule to begin based on the work from different institutes around the world.

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While this virus outbreak isn’t something to ignore, it isn’t something to panic about either. Infectious disease researchers around the world are working really hard to provide more answers to our questions, and it is quite special to see the research community working together collectively on something.

I hope these questions have helped clear things up a little for you, but if you have any other concerns or questions, please do ask them in the comments, or on social media. Alternatively, you can head to the World Health Organisation website which has reliable and up-to-date information on it.

Do you have any more coronavirus questions? Has this post helped at all?

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