The new coronavirus, well explained
All the things to know about the virus that has killed over one hundred people in China, and which continues to spread among the population
Due to the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV), over 100 people have died in China and thousands of confirmed cases of people who have become ill from the virus have now been reported. The situation continues to be difficult especially in Wuhan, a city in central China where the first reports of patients with severe pneumonia had started at the end of 2019, which then led to the discovery of the coronavirus. The Chinese government has ordered the isolation of Wuhan and several other cities, measures that affect tens of millions of people and with the aim of reducing the risk of new infections.
What is a coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a particular type of virus belonging to the Coronaviridae family. In general, viruses are particular biological entities: they are not really living beings, but they have the ability to invade an organism and exploit its resources to thrive and multiply, as parasites do. To do this, they bind to the cells of organisms, evade the defenses of their membranes and open a passage through which they modify their genetic characteristics.
Coronaviruses use RNA, which is ribonucleic acid, as a genetic material: a “simplified” version of DNA, which serves the same purpose of encoding and transmitting genetic information. These types of viruses are so-called because their virions (the infectious part) appear under the electron microscope as small globules, on which there are many small tips that resemble those of a crown.
The tips are made up of “peplomers”, the protein structures that together with other mechanisms serve for viruses to attach to the cells of the organism to be infected. Once the viruses attach to the host cells, they release their genetic code by changing the behavior of the cell. This process causes an immune response to be activated by the infected organism, which tries to get rid of the virus (usually by raising the temperature: in practice, a fever comes).
Are there many types of coronaviruses?
Coronaviruses are quite common among various species of mammals and birds: they infect their respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. For about 60 years, we have known that in some cases these viruses have been able to pass on to humans, causing symptoms that vary according to their characteristics. To date, seven different coronaviruses are known to infect humans, including 2019-nCoV, the one recently discovered in China. Coronaviruses are often among the causes of the common cold, so they are not that rare, but some are more aggressive than others.
Why “new coronavirus”?
A newly identified coronavirus is simply called a “new coronavirus” and its characteristics are not yet fully known; usually over time a different, less scientific name is then indicated, with reference to the symptoms it causes.
And what symptoms does the new coronavirus give?
According to information provided so far by Chinese and international health authorities, the new coronavirus initially causes flu-like symptoms: nasal congestion (stuffy nose), sore throat, fatigue, and fever. In some cases the disease progresses, creating inflammation of the innermost structures of the lungs, and in the absence of adequate care or due to the presence of previous diseases it can prove to be fatal.
How are patients treated with new coronavirus?
The first resource to counteract a viral infection is your immune system, which identifies the infection and develops the ability to fight the virus, preventing it from doing further harm in the future. There is no cure and doctors can only administer medications to reduce symptoms, or to treat complications such as pneumonia, if it occurs. Something similar already happens with the flu, in the case of patients with previous health problems.
So it’s not that bad?
In 2009, the H1N1 (swine fever) virus pandemic caused the death of about half a million people worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of people die worldwide every year due to complications from common flu. The new coronavirus appears to be more aggressive and – like all new viruses – it should not be underestimated until its mechanisms are understood.
What about SARS?
These days there has often been talking of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, from the English “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome”) in reference to what is happening in China. SARS is probably the best-known disease linked to a coronavirus: the virus that caused it was identified between 2002 and 2003 and leads to a widespread infection of the respiratory system. In 2003 about 8 thousand cases of SARS were registered, with a lethality rate of 10 percent, therefore much higher than the current one for 2019-nCoV. At the time, China was severely criticized, by the World Health Organization itself (WHO), for initially hiding information about the infections, fearing that news of that type could damage the country’s fast-growing economy.
Who is studying 2019-nCoV?
Hundreds of researchers in China and other areas of the world are studying the characteristics of the new coronavirus. Unlike what happened with SARS, information from the Chinese side was communicated more quickly to WHO and, thanks to technological advances, the genetic profile of the virus is already available to experts to study it and understand how it works.
Where does the new coronavirus come from?
With its 11 million inhabitants, Wuhan is the largest city in central China. On December 31, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission had sent a report to the WHO, explaining that it had recorded a number of cases of pneumonia with unknown causes. The investigations had highlighted a link with a market of seafood, poultry, and other live wild animals, but research published in the scientific journal Lancet questions this possibility (the data must, however, receive further confirmation). About ten days after the report, China’s Disease Control Center announced that it had identified a new coronavirus by studying Wuhan’s pneumonia. The times of discovery and reporting are still under analysis, however, to understand if it could be done sooner and better.
Why is there so much talk about live animal markets?
In China, markets are very popular where you can buy pigs, poultry and various other wild species of animals considered delicacies for local cuisine or useful for traditional medicine, such as bats. The contiguity between humans and these animals, combined with poor hygiene conditions, increases the risk that viruses pass from an animal species to humans, changing to adapt to new guests. The suspicion is that something similar has happened in the past, with SARS, and in recent weeks with the transition of 2019-nCoV to humans, probably precisely from bats. Also, for this reason, the Chinese government is working to ban, or at least suspend, commercial activities in the wild animal markets.
Does the problem concern only China?
Viruses have always circulated and spread all over the world, allowing passage from the animals they infect. At one time, diseases came by ship, as happened for example with the black plague in Europe in the fourteenth century, today through air travel. The problem, therefore, does not only concern Wuhan and some other provinces in China but the whole world. People from China were found infected in various places of their destination, such as the United States, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Canada, Japan, and France.
How contagious is the disease?
We currently don’t know for sure. The incubation period, i.e. the time that passes from when you are infected with the new coronavirus to when you fall ill, is on average 10-14 days. The problem is that according to several reports it is contagious even in the incubation period, therefore even before developing the symptoms. This circumstance could make the containment of the virus more complicated, because many people may not know that they are infected while dealing with others, or traveling.
How do you get infected?
Coronaviruses can be transmitted from person to person, usually following close contacts, in family, between friends, in workplaces, and in very crowded places. From the research carried out so far, the first vehicle of contagion seems to be drops of saliva and mucus from infected people, with whom one comes into contact. The diffusion by air seems less frequent, but also, in this case, it will be necessary to wait other days to have a more significant number of cases to study.
How do you protect yourself from the new coronavirus?
Health authority recommendations to reduce the risk of 2019-nCoV infection are similar to those indicated for other infectious diseases. The advice is to wash your hands often with soap and water (for at least thirty seconds), to sneeze and cough in a handkerchief or by bringing the hollow of your elbow to your mouth (in this way you do not contaminate the objects you touch with hands and, at the same time, nothing is brought to the mouth after touching surfaces that could be contaminated). It is also advised to avoid foods such as unwashed fruit and vegetables, unwrapped drinks, useful information especially for those who are in places where the presence of the virus is certain.
Are the masks needed?
In China millions of people have been circulating for days with masks, usually made of fabric and similar to those used in the operating room. It can be a good precaution for sick people to reduce the risks of contamination, while it is not certain that they offer some more guarantees to those who do not want to get in touch with the new coronavirus. Experts advise above all to wash your hands often and avoid putting them in your mouth or touching your eyes without having washed them first.
How is the virus contained on a large scale?
Prevention, through the control of infections and the places where they occurred, is the basis of the systems to prevent the spread of a new virus. The main objective is to ensure that 2019-nCoV spreads as little as possible from the areas of China where there is the greatest number of infections. The city of Wuhan and several other urban centers have been placed under isolation, but it is not clear whether such drastic measures are useful, weeks after the first infections. One problem is the increasing number of people arriving in hospitals with the symptoms of the disease: they must be put in isolation and kept in this condition if it is confirmed that they have the new coronavirus. In Wuhan, there are not enough beds in hospitals, and for this reason, too a new large prefabricated hospital is under construction.
And in the rest of the world?
The first access point of the disease outside of China are the airports, so checks are mainly performed on flights arriving from Chinese cities. The procedures, which vary according to the country, usually require the entry of health personnel on the planes that have just landed from China: using insulating suits, the workers detect the temperature of the passengers and evaluate the possible presence of other symptoms. It is in this way that cases outside of China have been identified and that subsequent contagions have been avoided for now. Restrictions on travel by the Chinese government are also helping to reduce the flow of Chinese citizens abroad.
Is there a vaccine?
The discovery of a new virus does not imply that a vaccine is always developed to combat it: much depends on how much that virus constitutes a risk and on its ability to spread. At the moment, the most practical thing is to contain the virus by reducing the risk of new infections. The knowledge on the characteristics of the new coronavirus is gradually more precise and we cannot exclude that, in the case of its widespread diffusion, a vaccine will be developed, which should, however, be tested and verified before becoming available.
All clear, but is there any concern?
Without anxiety and psychosis. A new coronavirus must never be underestimated, especially until all its characteristics and the modalities in which it changes, to evade the immune defenses are known. The number of 2019-nCoV cases found so far is relatively low, but experts agree that it will continue to grow and that there may be more deaths. For now, the virus appears to cause less severe symptoms than SARS, but it can still have serious consequences in people with other health problems; there are also sporadic reports of complications even in young and healthier subjects that should not be overlooked.
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