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, 2019-nCoV 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 the 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.
The 2019-nCoV 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 40,000 and killed more than 900, according to the World Health Organization. That’s a lot of people, but the death rate is relatively low — around 2%.
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 America, the likelihood of getting the novel coronavirus is very low, health officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stated.
All the coronavirus patients in the US thus far have had travel history to China.
The United States also has a robust public health system. Even though there’s no specific medication that can treat the virus, 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.
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“I don’t think we need to be concerned at all at this stage,” said Stephen Hopton Cann, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health.
“The infection has been going for a while… In general, [there has been] very little spread outside of China.”
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 American cases of 2019-nCoV are there?
There are twelve confirmed cases in the US — in Washington, California, Arizona, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts.
America’s first confirmed case was a man in his 30s who returned to Washington after traveling to Wuhan.
What’s being done about the coronavirus?
In China’s Hubei province, the epicenter 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 the United States, have organized repatriation flights to bring home their citizens.
The US is also screening passengers at the three airports that receive the most flights from China (SFO, JFK, and LAX). Customs officers are asking all international arrivals if they’re experiencing symptoms, and if so, are scanning them for signs of a fever.
American health officials have asked anyone who’s traveled to China’s Hubei province during the outbreak or had close contact with someone who has, to consider self-isolating for 14 days to make sure they’re not sick.
What about the 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. Canada’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
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 2019-nCoV 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.”