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What is the novel coronavirus?
The novel coronavirus is a newly detected group of viruses that were first discovered in China toward the end of 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) in February 2020 officially named the disease it causes as COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019. (1)
The COVID-19 virus not only spreads rapidly but also causes multiple system infections, targeting mainly the respiratory tract in humans. Symptoms can go from mild to moderate to severe very quickly, with nearly 20% of those affected figuring in the critical category. (2)
This novel coronavirus primarily spread among animals, such as bats, camels, cattle, pangolins, and cats, and was identified in humans only recently after being transmitted by an infected animal.
The passage of infection from an animal to humans is called zoonosis.
What is the difference between coronaviruses and the novel coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses responsible for approximately 15%-20% of common cold symptoms in humans. However, note that the most common pathogen of the common cold belongs to the family of rhinoviruses.
The novel coronavirus is genetically different from the previous strains of coronaviruses and is considered to be much more aggressive and fatal.
A coronavirus infection and the common cold that is caused by rhinovirus share many common symptoms, including:
- Watery eyes
- Fever (may or may not be present)
- Nasal congestion
- Postnasal drip
- General malaise
- Muscle aches
In a coronavirus infection, these symptoms usually peak by the second or third day of the infection and may last for up to 2 weeks.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
The most commonly reported symptoms of COVID-19 are:
- Fever >38 °C or >100 °F
- Shortness of breath
- Dry cough
- Muscle aches
- General malaise
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
- Generalized infection and other serious complications
- Multi-organ dysfunction
These symptoms can have an early or late-onset, appearing anytime between the second day and 14 days after exposure. The typical incubation period of the novel coronavirus is said to be 2 weeks.
Thankfully, nearly 80% of all the confirmed cases have shown mild symptoms, as indicated by a study published in The Lancet. (2)
The WHO-China Joint Mission on COVID-19 held a press conference on 24 February 2020, and it stated that, based on the currently available evidence, the average recovery time is around 2 weeks for mild cases and 3-6 weeks for severe ones. (3)
Is the novel coronavirus airborne? How long can the virus survive on any surface?
Like other respiratory viruses, the COVID-19 virus seems to spread via respiratory droplets released in the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs.
These virus-carrying droplets can be inhaled by anyone in the vicinity of the infected individual, leading to an infection.
However, infection can also be contracted indirectly. The virus-carrying droplets can land on the skin, clothes, or surrounding surfaces of the infected person.
If you touch these surfaces, you contaminate your hands with the virus. If you then touch your face with your contaminated hands, the virus may come in contact with your respiratory mucosa and gain entry into your system. You can also catch the virus by coming in contact with the infected surface and then touching their nose, mouth or eyes.
Very little is known about the COVID-19 virus as of now, so there is no way to tell how long it can survive in the environment or on a surface. Experts are working tirelessly to gain as much insight and information about this novel strain to contain its spread.
Which people are more prone to getting infected with the novel coronavirus?
COVID-19 is more likely to affect those who are aged 60 years or older with preexisting medical problems. This group belongs to the frail category of society, their immune system is not only debilitated by age itself (immunosenescence) but also suppressed by the burden of the disease.
In elderly patients, this infection could quickly evolve to a fatal respiratory disease, such as acute respiratory distress syndrome. However, most patients are likely to have mild symptoms with a good prognosis if treated promptly and properly.
Presently, we have a scarcity of data regarding the epidemiology and clinical features of the complications caused by this family of viruses. (2)
What risks are associated with COVID-19?
Some of the risks associated with COVID-19 are related to the complications of the disease in those who are vulnerable.
The disease could lead to pneumonia complicated by severe respiratory failure, gastrointestinal-associated symptoms such as diarrhea, and multi-organ dysfunction at the end that could potentially put the life of the patient in danger.
From which family of viruses does the novel coronavirus belong?
The first case of coronavirus dates back to the 1960s. (4) A characteristic feature of this group of viruses is the crown-like spikes on their surface.
Coronaviruses are divided into four major subgroups, namely:
The newest strain of coronavirus, the COVID-19 virus, falls in the beta category based on its genetic analysis.
What preventive measures should be taken against COVID-19?
Presently, no vaccines and approved medications are available to fight COVID-19.
The WHO has released a series of preventive measures to contain the spread of COVID-19:
- Frequent hand hygiene is key to keep yourself infection-free. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand rub product that contains between 60% and 90% of alcohol, for at least 20 seconds.
- Stay away from anyone who shows symptoms of the disease, and avoid any kind of contact whatsoever.
- The minute you feel a cough or sneeze coming on, cover your mouth with a tissue, and then discard the used tissue in the trash at once.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth without sanitizing your hands first.
- Regularly clean and sanitize the commonly used surfaces in your washroom, kitchen, and office with disinfectant products that have been approved by your local disease-control authorities.
- Keep yourself updated about the latest discovery and developments related to this family of viruses by visiting the WHO website and other such informative portals. Make sure that the information you receive and forward comes from a reliable source.
- Social distancing can greatly help in reducing the spread of the virus. In times of a global pandemic, it is the responsibility of each individual to care for not only their own health but also that of others.
If you feel remotely sick, stay at home and distance yourself from your family members until you are feeling better. If the condition persists, get medical care as soon as possible.
- Do not fly if you are sick with fever or cough, because you risk infecting others if you are indeed carrying the virus.
- If you become sick during a flight, inform the flight crew immediately so that you can be quarantined.
- COVID-19 can take a serious, even life-threatening, turn in people who are older than 60, especially those with a preexisting medical problem, such as respiratory illnesses (emphysema, COPD, or chronic bronchitis), diabetes mellitus, cerebrovascular disease, kidney disease, and anemia.
If you fall into this category, exercise extra precaution and proactive self-care, such as avoiding crowded public spaces or places where sick people reside.
Make sure that your existing medical conditions are properly managed by visiting your primary care physician regularly, adopting favorable lifestyle modifications, and eating healthy to boost your immune system.
- If you develop a fever or any of the respiratory symptoms associated with COVID-19, consult your primary care physician without delay.
- If you are caring for people with suspected or documented COVID-19 at home, wear a tightly fitting medical mask when in the same room as the patient. (1)(5)(6)
How do coronaviruses usually spread?
The mode of transmission for coronaviruses is respiratory droplets released by an infected person while coughing or sneezing. The droplets may then be inhaled by the people in the immediate surrounding of the infected person.
The virus can also contaminate human skin or any surface where the droplets land. Touching these surfaces and then touching your face with contaminated hands, especially the area around the nose, can transfer the virus to the respiratory mucosa and eventually into your body. (7)(5)
A spread could be possible before patients show any type of symptoms. However, based on recent reports, this is not thought to be the way how this virus becomes contagious. (7)
Can one get re-infected by coronavirus virus once treated?
At the present moment, there is no medical treatment for COVID-19, only preventive measures such as those recently recommended by the WHO. (10)
Can a person get re-infected with the same virus? Generally speaking, immunity will develop right after exposure with the pathogen. However, immunity wanes gradually over time.
For this particular virus, investigations regarding reinfection are still early in the process. (11)
Which kinds of masks can protect one from coronavirus infection, and who should use them?
The WHO and other important organizations, such as the Centers for Disease and Control, have not made any specifications regarding any specific masks.
According to the WHO, people who are coughing or sneezing are advised to wear a mask as a precautionary measure, whether or not they have tested positive yet. (12)
For those who are not infected or do not have any preconditions, the WHO recommends that they wear a mask only when taking care of a person with a suspected COVID-19 infection. (12)
The measure of wearing a mask is mostly for infected individuals who may cough or sneeze and release virus-carrying droplets in the air.
However, a lot of people may be carriers of the virus without even realizing it, especially if they have no symptoms (asymptomatic). Besides, healthy individuals may be in the vicinity of an infected person or a carrier and run the risk of inhaling their respiratory droplets.
So, everyone can benefit from wearing a mask, not just those infected or those caring for the infected.
In any case, wearing a mask alone will not keep you safe from contracting the infection. It will only serve any purpose when coupled with proper hand hygiene that calls for frequently washing your hands for at least 30 seconds with an alcohol-based hand rub or with simple soap and water.
Which variety of hand sanitizers should be used?
You can use any hand sanitizer that has 60%-90% alcohol and is preferably approved by the local authorities in your area.
Can one get the infection from their pets? Are animals, in general, susceptible to the novel coronavirus?
There is no evidence that pets, such as dogs and cats, could be infected or could spread the COVID-19 virus, but the exploration of all aspects of this infection is still ongoing.
Can warm weather stop the spread of the virus?
There is no evidence that warm weather/climate or high temperatures could stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
What is the incubation period of the COVID-19 virus?
The incubation period of the COVID-19 virus is thought to be within the first 14 days after exposure. (13)
In a study of 1,099 patients with confirmed symptomatic COVID-19, the median incubation period was 4 days (interquartile range of 2-7 days). (14)
Can a person test negative for COVID-19 the first time and then test positive?
There is much to be discovered about this novel infection. Still, currently available evidence suggests that test results depend on how one’s immune system responds to the infection, which may leave room for a false negative or false positive.
So, additional testing may be required in some circumstances.
What is the difference between the SARS virus and the COVID-19 virus?
A recent genetic analysis indicated that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is a beta coronavirus and belongs to the same family as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus (as well as other bat coronaviruses). The SARS and COVID-19 viruses are in the same family but belong to different groups. (4)
The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses has named the virus that causes COVID-19 as “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” (SARS-CoV-2). (8)
Is there a vaccine available against the novel coronavirus? How close are the doctors to a vaccine against COVID-19?
No, no vaccine is yet available against the novel coronavirus.
Based on a recent press release from the WHO, 20 vaccines are in the pipeline. However, they will not be available any time soon. It could be several weeks before any vaccine could be used to prevent COVID-19. (7)
What guidelines have been given by the WHO against the novel coronavirus?
After declaring COVID-19 as a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020, the WHO enumerated three major priorities for every country to take seriously:
- To protect health workers
- To engage communities to protect the most vulnerable population (e.g., elderly and those with associated medical problems)
- To support the vulnerable countries in containing the infection (9)
The WHO does not recommend travel limitations but does acknowledge that some travel restrictions may be temporarily key in some areas.
For more in-depth travel-related guidelines, please refer to the WHO website.