A new coronavirus virus, likely first transmitted to people from animals at a market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, is making international headlines as disease detectives work to uncover what it is, how it's transmitted, and how deadly the virus actually is.
As an infectious disease specialist and the hospital epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, my job is to prepare for and respond to outbreaks of all sorts of illnesses -; from staph infections to Ebola -; while caring for patients at our academic medical center on Chicago's South Side.
Public health officials are continuing to learn more about this new virus, which so far has sickened one person in the U.S. Although more cases are likely both abroad and here in the U.S., people shouldn't panic.
Here's what we know so far about this brand new virus: What is a coronavirus? What is a novel coronavirus?
A coronavirus is actually the name for a family of viruses, including some that can cause the common cold. This virus is a novel coronavirus, which means it's a new virus that has not been seen before and it's also new to humans.
It probably originated in an animal (maybe a snake, according to one recent report), but developed some mutations that let it "jump" to humans. This particular virus from Wuhan is being called the 2019 novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV. Where and how did the Wuhan novel coronavirus begin?
A few weeks ago, a cluster of severe pneumonia cases were reported on New Year's Eve in Wuhan, which is in the Hubei Province of China.
On Jan. 9, virologists and other public health researchers identified the strain as a new coronavirus, which was tied to a specific "wet market" in the city of Wuhan where they sell fish and other live animals for food.
These markets have been known to transmit viruses before. So many people interacting with live animals that are often slaughtered on site is just the right environment for viruses to make that interspecies jump to humans.
Sometimes the virus doesn't spread well between people (like the H5N1 "avian influenza"), but other times the virus also develops the ability to spread from person to person. This is how SARS, another novel coronavirus, started in 2003. How does the Wuhan coronavirus spread?
So far, there's limited information about 2019-nCoV, including how easy it is to spread and how dangerous it is.
But understanding these two important facts will really help us determine how much of a risk this new virus poses. So far, we know this virus can be transmitted from person to person and it is probably passed by coughing and other close contact.
Close contact is a vague term that means a lot of things to different people. But in the case of other novel coronaviruses, it means being within about six feet of someone for a prolonged period of time without wearing recommended personal protective equipment such as a disposable facemask.
It could also be having direct contact with infectious secretions of someone who has a case of the virus. For example, you could touch a surface contaminated by someone's cough or snot and then spread the virus to your own face or mouth without even realizing it.
That can sound scary, but it's important to know that influenza is also transmitted the same way. It's a good reminder to make sure we're washing our hands frequently, covering our nose and mouth when we sneeze and staying away from people who are coughing.
And while we are on the topic: stay home when you are sick. No one wants novel coronavirus, influenza, or a common cold. Is this coronavirus deadly?
The numbers are changing rapidly and we don't yet have a clear picture of how many people are sick or how many have died. Until we get a clearer picture of these two things, the jury's still out. That said, we do know people have died from this virus.
Based on the information I'm seeing, it looks similar to SARS in a number of ways -; except for the fact that it's likely less deadly, but more transmissible. Have there been cases of the Wuhan novel coronavirus cases in places other than China? Related Stories
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