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Coronavirus: Origin, Spread, Protection

According to the WHO, coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

These viruses were originally transmitted between animals and people. SARS, for instance, was transmitted from civet cats to humans while MERS moved to humans from a type of camel.Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans.

The name coronavirus comes from the Latin word corona, meaning crown or halo. Under an electron microscope, the image of the virus looks like a solar corona.

The novel coronavirus, identified by Chinese authorities on January 7 and since named COVID-19, is a new strain that had not been previously identified in humans. Little is known about it, although human-to-human transmission has been confirmed.

  Symptoms and spread

According to the WHO, signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, it can lead to pneumonia, multiple organ failure and even death.

WHO analysis of currently available data showed 82 percent of cases appear to be mild, about 15 percent progress to severe and 3 percent are critical. Most of the fatal cases were in older people and people with underlying conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.

Current estimates of the incubation period – the amount of time between infection and the onset of symptoms – range from 1-12 days. Most infected people show symptoms within five to six days.

More than 67,000 people worldwide, vast majority of them in China, have been infected by the new coronavirus, which continues to spread to more countries since it was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December.

At least 1,500 people have died so far in mainland China, as well as one person in Hong Kong, one in Philippines and another one in Japan. Almost all the fatalities in China have been in Hubei province, the capital of which – Wuhan – is where the virus first originated.

The coronavirus – known as COVID-19 – spreads from person to person in close proximity, similar to other respiratory illnesses, such as the flu.

Droplets of bodily fluids – such as saliva or mucus – from an infected person are dispersed in the air or on surfaces by coughing or sneezing.

These droplets can come into direct contact with other people or can infect those who pick them up by touching infected surfaces and then their face.

According to scientists, coughs and sneezes can travel several feet and stay suspended in the air for up to 10 minutes.

It is not yet known how long the virus can survive outside a host but, in other viruses, it ranges from a few hours to months.

Transmission is of particular concern on transport, where droplets containing the coronavirus could pass between passengers or via surfaces like aeroplane seats and armrests.

The incubation period of the coronavirus, the length of time before symptoms appear, is between one and 14 days.

Although not yet confirmed, Chinese health authorities believe the virus can be transmitted before symptoms appear.

Viruses that spread quickly usually come with lower mortality rates and vice versa. As the virus is an entirely new strain, it is believed that there is no existing immunity in anyone it will encounter.

Some level of immunity will naturally develop over time, but this means that those with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly or sick, are most at risk of becoming severely ill or dying from the coronavirus.

Although the total number of deaths has now exceeded those recorded during the 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the current mortality rate is much lower than that of SARS.

The coronavirus mortality rate stands at 2.4 percent, while SARS killed 9.6 percent of those infected.

How people can protect themselves 

In terms of self-protection and containing the virus, experts agree that is important to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap; cover your face with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing; visit a doctor if you have symptoms; and avoid direct contact with live animals in affected areas.

While face masks are popular, scientists doubt their effectiveness against airborne viruses.

Masks may provide some protection to you and others, but because they are loose and made of permeable material, droplets can still pass through.

Many countries have advised people travelling back from China to self-quarantine for at least two weeks.

China has placed Wuhan and more than a dozen other cities under lockdown, affecting more than 60 million people, although this has not prevented the virus from spreading to all of China’s provinces.

As the number of confirmed cases continues to rise, businesses and countries are taking increasingly drastic action.  

Given the response and effect, the new coronavirus is being treated as a serious concern. The infection is now more widespread than the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, which also originated in China.

The WHO has designated the outbreak with its highest warning level, as it did for five others, including Ebola in 2014 and 2019, polio in 2014, the Zika virus in 2016 and swine flu in 2009.

On February 10, a WHO-led team of investigators arrived in China to evaluate the situation in more detail.

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