Coronavirus: What We Do and Don’t Know


A rapidly evolving health news broke in late December 2019 with a novel illness originating in Wuhan, China. Reports of the number of infected people rose swiftly, and isolated cases of the new coronavirus — referred to as 2019-nCoV — have appeared in several countries. At this writing, about 2,000 new cases were recorded in China in the past 24 hours, raising the worldwide total to nearly 9,800, according to Chinese and World Health Organization (WHO) data.
With information about the coronavirus changing so quickly and news reports about the originating illness seeming to raise the stakes, you’re likely to be wondering how worried you ought to be. Here’s a primer on what we know about the virus and what it means for you. While there’s much we don’t yet know about the virus, medical experts, public health officials, and scientists are collaborating to provide more information.

What is a coronavirus?
Per the WHO, coronaviruses or CoV belongs to a large family of illness-causing viruses, ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS-CoV and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS-CoV. A novel coronavirus or nCoV is a new strain that hasn’t previously been identified in humans.
Coronaviruses are zoonotic, indicating that they are passed on between animals and individuals. Recent research suggests that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to us, humans. Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected us.

What are the common symptoms of coronavirus?
The common symptoms include cough with fever and in some cases, shortness of breath. There are reports of non-respiratory symptoms like vomiting, nausea, or diarrhoea. Many people easily recover within a few days. However, the elderly, very young, or people with a weak immune system may develop a more serious infection, such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

Are antibiotics effective in preventing/treating the coronavirus?
No, antibiotics don’t work against viruses. They can only fight bacteria. The new coronavirus is a virus and, therefore, antibiotics can neither be a means of prevention nor treatment. However, if hospitalized, you may receive antibiotics to prevent bacterial co-infection.

How is it treated?
Scientists are striving to understand the virus. Currently, there aren’t any approved antivirals for the coronavirus. For patients suffering from this illness, specialized, extensive care in an intensive care unit (ICU) can be lifesaving.

Can pets at home spread the coronavirus?
So far, there’s no evidence that pets like cats or dogs can be infected with the coronavirus. However, it is a good idea to wash your hands after contact with pets. This provides protection against common bacteria like Salmonella and E.coli that can pass on from pets to humans.

Should you worry about catching this virus?
Unless you are or have been in close contact with an individual who has the coronavirus — which right now, means a traveller from Wuhan, China (the epicentre of the outbreak) who has the virus — chances are that you are safe. So far, most cases are in people who have been in Wuhan, family members of those infected, or medical workers. India reported its first positive case of novel coronavirus on Thursday (30 January 2020). The patient is a student at Wuhan University and is now in isolation in a hospital in Kerala.
While we do not yet understand how the virus spreads, coronavirus is generally passed through droplets that contain large particles that can typically be suspended in the air for three to six feet before dissipating. By contrast, measles or chickenpox spread through smaller droplets over greater distances. Some coronaviruses have been found in the stool of some people.
So, it is likely that sneezes or coughs from an infected person are likely to spread the virus. It is too early to confirm whether yet another means of transmission, faecal-oral contact, is also capable of spreading coronavirus.
WHO’s recommendations for the public to reduce transmission of a range of illnesses, including the coronavirus, are as follows:

  • Clean your hands frequently with hand wash or soap and water
  • Cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue – throw away the tissue immediately and wash your hands when coughing or sneezing
  • Do not stay in close contact with anyone who has fever and cough
  • Seek immediate medical care and share travel history with the healthcare provider if you have cough, fever, and difficulty when breathing
  • Avoid unprotected contact with animals and those surfaces that are in contact with animals when visiting areas experiencing cases of coronavirus
  • Don’t indulge in the consumption of raw or undercooked animal products
  • Handle milk, raw meat, or animal organs carefully to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods

Given the current spread of this virus and the pace of international travel, the number of cases is likely to increase. The Chinese government has put Wuhan into virtual quarantine to stop further spread of the virus. A number of foreign governments have advised against non-essential travel to China and are flying their citizens out of Wuhan. As more information about the virus becomes available, public health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and WHO will be sharing information and strategies worldwide.