The novel coronavirus explained: Should I be worried?
The novel coronavirus that’s captured the world’s attention in recent weeks has now killed more people than SARS.
Here’s a refresher on where the virus came from, the impact it’s had, and where we go from here.
What is the novel coronavirus?
As its name suggests, COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus, a virus family known for causing respiratory illness in birds and mammals — including humans. Sometimes they cause diarrhea, too.
A portion of all “common colds” are caused by coronaviruses, but some strains of coronavirus cause more severe sickness and can be deadly. Other, more serious strains, include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
“Prior to SARS, people didn’t pay a lot of attention to coronaviruses. They were thought of as being cold viruses – mild symptoms, considered to be endemic, a minor issue,” Jason Kindrachuk, Canada research chair in medical microbiology and infectious disease at the University of Manitoba, told Daily Hive.
COVID-19 is “novel” because before December 2019, it hadn’t been seen in humans before.
Where did it come from?
Scientists believe the virus jumped from an animal host to a human in a chance encounter at a market in Wuhan, China.
Many other viruses have jumped from animal hosts to humans in the past, including HIV from chimpanzees, Zika from mosquitoes, Ebola from bats, and SARS from bats or civet cats. It all depends whether the virus’s genetic material has the tools to infiltrate a new host species’ cells and multiply there, Kindrachuk explained.
A bat, or perhaps a scaly pangolin, is being blamed for carrying the coronavirus at the market in December 2019.
“A wildlife market is fertile ground for mixing different species,” Kindrachuk said, adding people are “contacting the animals, killing the animals, carving them up, perhaps getting meat from the animals. There’s an increased chance of exposure.”
Chinese authorities closed down the Wuhan market on January 1, but the coronavirus was already spreading among humans.
Is the coronavirus dangerous?
As of February 9, 2019-nCoV has infected more than 79,000 and killed more than 2,600, according to the World Health Organization. That’s a lot of people, but the death rate is relatively low — around 2% to 3%.
By comparison, SARS killed about 10% of people infected. Seasonal influenza (flu) kills about 1% of people who get sick with it.
“We’re cautious right now. Obviously it’s spreading,” Kindrachuk said. “I don’t consider it really low risk, but I don’t consider it to be a global killer of epic proportions.”
How does the coronavirus impact me?
If you live in Canada, the likelihood of getting the novel coronavirus is very low, health officials from multiple provinces say.
All the coronavirus patients in Canada thus far have travelled to China or Iran (another country where there’s been a spike in cases), or been in close contact with someone who has.
Canada also has a robust public health system. Even though there’s no specific medication that can treat the novel coronavirus, having access to things like an intravenous line for rehydration and a ventilator for breathing problems can go a long way in helping someone recover from a respiratory illness such as the coronavirus, according to Kindrachuk.
“The infection has been going for a while and there’s been very little spread to Canada, and in general, very little spread outside of China,” said Stephen Hoption Cann, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health.
Low- and middle-income countries will have a harder time dealing with the coronavirus if cases emerge there, health officials believe. That’s why the World Health Organization issued a global public health emergency on January 30, to be able to muster resources to help those countries.
How many Canadian cases of 2019-nCoV are there?
There are eleven confirmed cases in Canada — four in Ontario and seven in BC.
Canada’s first case was a man in his 50s who returned to Toronto after travelling to Wuhan. His wife also caught the virus. The man was admitted to Sunnybrook Hospital and was later discharged after his health improved. Both have now fully recovered.
A Western University student in her early 20s who was in Wuhan over the winter break also caught the virus.
“Before showing any symptoms, the student took great care and responsibility by self-isolating at home and seeking appropriate medical attention,” the university said in a January 31 statement.
The student has also recovered and is no longer infectious.
Ontario’s fourth coronavirus patient returned to Toronto from China on February 21. She went to North York General Hospital, but was discharged to self-isolate at home after being tested.
In BC, a man in his 40s who regularly travels to China for work tested positive for the virus. He isolated himself at home, and his illness is relatively mild, health officials said. They later updated the public to say he’s made a full recovery.
The next three coronavirus infections struck people in the same household. A man and a woman in their 30s came to Canada from Hubei to visit, and it’s believed they passed the virus to a woman in her 50s who was hosting them.
BC’s fifth case was in a woman who lives in the Interior who returned home from Shanghai.
The sixth case is in a woman who returned to the Fraser Health region from Iran on February 14. Health officials believe she passed the virus to a man who was in close contact with her who also lives in the Fraser Health region.
Outside of the country, several Canadians also become sick with the novel coronavirus aboard a cruise ship in Japan. Later, Canada chartered a plane to evacuate its healthy citizens still quarantined aboard the ship.
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What’s being done about the coronavirus?
In China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, whole cities have been put on lockdown and transportation networks have been halted to stop the spread of the virus.
Several countries, including Canada, have organized repatriation flights to bring home their citizens. Canada’s first repatriation flight landed at the military base in Trenton, Ontario, on February 7. The passengers are staying in isolation for 14 days before continuing home.
Canada is also screening passengers at the three airports that receive flights from China (Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal). Customs officers are asking all international arrivals if they’re experiencing symptoms, and if so, are scanning them for signs of a fever.
Canadian health officials have asked anyone who’s travelled to China’s Hubei province during the outbreak or had close contact with someone who has, to self-isolate for 14 days to make sure they’re not sick.
What about fear surrounding the coronavirus?
The outbreak has caused worry among many, and similar to the SARS outbreak, will likely have a global economic impact.
Concerning incidents of racism against Chinese and Asian people have also been reported here in Canada. The country’s top doctor, Theresa Tam, weighed in to say such incidents are unacceptable.
“It is understandable that our fears increase during times like this. However, we need to remember that cohesion in our collective efforts is important,” she tweeted.
1/5 I am concerned about the growing number of reports of #racism and stigmatizing comments on social media directed to people of Chinese and Asian descent related to #2019nCOV #coronavirus. #EndStigma pic.twitter.com/xpueZTcNn9
— Dr. Theresa Tam (@CPHO_Canada) January 30, 2020
The BC Centre for Disease Control also tried to put people at ease by clearing up some myths surrounding the coronavirus.
What happens next?
Researchers around the world are sharing their findings of the coronavirus quickly. Here in Canada, scientists at the University of Saskatchewan are looking into a vaccine.
“We’re still trying to understand how it’s transmitted, how long it can live on surfaces, and how to treat it,” Hoption Cann said.
According to public health experts, the worst-case scenario right now is that the novel coronavirus becomes endemic in the human population. That means it would become an annual concern with people falling sick every winter, similar to the flu.
The best-case outcome is that the world’s containment measures are effective and the virus never establishes sustained human-to-human transmission outside of China. Hopefully, the virus will eventually peter out — similar to how SARS caused a global scare but hasn’t resurfaced in a significant way since.
“I don’t think anybody has full confidence yet in what is going to happen,” Kindrachuk said. “Being only a month and a half old, we’re watching it unfold in real-time.”