VB News Desk: What Is the Coronavirus?

In the past few days, the coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan, China in December has been a topic of much discussion in the news. As of Jan. 24, more than 900 people have been infected, with a total of 22 cases outside of mainland China, including two in the US. Twenty-six people have died so far.  


Map showing countries where people have been infected with 2019-nCoV. Image from CDC.gov.

Here are the basics on this new coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses named for their shape―they have protrusions that look like spikes on a crown. The current outbreak’s virus has been dubbed 2019-nCoV, or 2019 novel coronavirus, by the medical community. It’s a relative of two other deadly coronaviruses, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), as well as the common cold

According to the World Health Organization, 2019-CoV causes respiratory symptoms such as “fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties,” which can escalate to “pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and even death.”

Like SARS and MERS, 2019-nCoV is also thought to have spread to humans from animals. The point of contact between animals and humans in this outbreak is suspected to be Wuhan’s seafood market, where many live animals (including birds, mammals, and reptiles) are bought and sold. Currently, some scientists hypothesize that 2019-nCoV spread from bats to snakes (specifically the Chinese krait and Chinese cobra) and then from snakes to humans. Others, however, aren't convinced that snakes are the source―further research will hopefully give a definitive answer. 

A number of factors make this virus worrisome for people not just in Wuhan, but around the world. As recently confirmed by the Chinese government, the virus can spread from person to person. Our interconnected world, in which people can travel across the globe in a number of hours, allows diseases to spread quickly—and because the Lunar New Year is coming up soon, many people, especially in China, have travel plans.

The good news is that the worldwide medical community and public health officials are watching the coronavirus outbreak very closely. Wuhan has announced a travel lockdown, and countries around the world are doing their best to screen travelers in an effort to contain the virus. Preliminary work on a vaccine for this virus is also underway. Although the WHO has not declared the situation a global health emergency, international communication and cooperation will be very important in dealing with this outbreak.

To learn about the respiratory system and other pathologies that affect it, check out these additional resources from the VB Blog and Learn Site:

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