Updated: Jan 26, 2020
It was the day after Christmas when a 61-year-old Chinese man went to the hospital in Wuhan, a city in central China. His family told health authorities that he had been sick for more than a week but now he was weak and coughing profusely. While in care, his health continued to deteriorate, and he was put onto a ventilator.
Authorities became concerned when they were unable to make any headway with treatment, so he was transferred to another hospital where a machine that provided oxygen to his blood was attached. Still, his condition worsened. On January 9, his heart gave out.
When testing revealed he had died from a coronavirus, the Chinese health commission ordered that this news be kept quiet until they were ready to make a statement. By the time the news was made public, 17 had already died from the disease. This past Friday, several more deaths were confirmed.
The Chinese authorities ordered that the city of Wuhan would be closed and quarantined. However, this measure was too little too late. As of January 25, the coronavirus had been found in travelers in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia, France, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States.
In this country, the Centers for Disease Control is investigating at least 61 potential cases from 22 states, with eleven testing negative and the other results pending. But the second case in this country was confirmed on the morning of January 24 in Chicago, where a 61-year-old woman was being treated after a trip to Wuhan, China.
Then, on Saturday afternoon, January 25, authorities in Connecticut issued a statement saying that a student at Wesleyan University was being monitored after he began exhibiting symptoms consistent with the coronavirus after a trip to Asia. Later that evening, a third case was confirmed in Orange County, California.
Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that are commonly found in animals. In some cases, which medical professionals call zoonotic, these viruses can be transmitted from animals to humans.
A coronavirus was first isolated over 80 years ago when poultry stocks were devastated following a rapidly spreading bronchial infection. Since then, scientists say that they have found coronaviruses in mice, rats, dogs, cats, turkeys, horses, pigs and cattle. These viruses, according to the CDC, are also responsible for between 15 and 30 percent of the common cold. Human coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s during an investigation into the common cold.
The coronaviruses get their name from a projection on their surface which resembles a crown, with the name “Corona”, Latin for “halo”, assigned to them. What makes these viruses unique, however, is their ability to mutate rapidly, giving the public little chance to develop any natural immunity and making them extremely contagious. In the past, other contagious coronaviruses have been encountered, including SARS and MERS.
SARS, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, came from animals and led to a life-threatening form of pneumonia. It not only has the ability to affect the upper and lower respiratory system but also cause gastroenteritis. In its advanced stage, it causes failure of the lungs, heart, and liver.
It, too, started in China and rapidly spread around the world, eventually being reported in 37 countries. In 2002, there were over 8000 confirmed cases with 774 deaths, causing a mortality rate of nearly 10 percent. Complications were more likely in older adults, and half of all infected people over the age of 65 years who became ill did not survive. It was eventually brought under control in July 2003.
MERS, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, was believed to be transferred to humans from dromedaries (one-humped camels), which were believed to be originally infected from a bat bite. It was first identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and eventually made its way to the United States.
Symptoms include fever, breathlessness, and coughing. The illness spreads through close contact with people who have already been infected. However, all cases of MERS are linked to individuals who have recently returned from travel to the Arabian Peninsula. MERS is fatal in 30 to 40 percent of people who contract it.
This new coronavirus, according to scientists, has never been seen before. It has been traced back to animals with a common location, the seafood market in Wuhan, being identified. Although it is not connected to seafood, this market also deals with freshly slaughtered animals. Late on January 24, Chinese medical officials began to look at the Chinese cobra, as the original source of the infection.
According to the CDC, this new coronavirus causes pneumonia, and because it is viral in origin, antibiotics are useless against it. The current antiviral drugs that are used have proven to have no effect on this virus. Those who become very ill and are hospitalized may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died are known to have been already in poor health.
People who have been diagnosed with this newest coronavirus tend to have a fever and cough, and some have difficulty breathing. The symptoms appear to set in at some point between two days and two weeks after the person has been exposed to the virus, according to health authorities.
Like MERS, this coronavirus is being transmitted from human to human. The actual number to have contracted the virus could be far higher as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. The virus responsible can be diagnosed by taking a sample of respiratory fluids, such as mucus from the nose, or blood.
Coronaviruses can spread in the following ways:
Coughing and sneezing without covering the mouth can disperse droplets into the air, spreading the virus;
Touching or shaking hands with a person that has the virus can pass the virus from one person to another;
Making contact with a surface or object that has the virus and then touching your nose, eyes, or mouth;
On rare occasions, a coronavirus may spread through contact with feces.
There is no cure, so treatments include taking care of yourself and over-the-counter (OTC) medication:
Rest and avoid overexertion;
Drink enough water;
Avoid smoking and smoky areas;
Take acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen to reduce pain and fever;
Use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer.
A Cause for Concern?
So just how concerned should we be about this coronavirus? According to health officials, it's too early to tell. What we do know that every day, it appears to be spreading to other countries and among those who had recently traveled to Asia. With currently 800 confirmed cases reported and 26 deaths resulting, it has a mortality rate of about 3%. However, we are cautioned that the number of infected could be much higher with the mortality rate being lower. Modeling by WHO experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be 4,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 1,000 and 9,700.
To keep this in perspective, the seasonal flu has a mortality rate of less than 1% and causes about 400,000 deaths worldwide on an annual basis. In the coming weeks, scientists should have a better idea of how contagious this latest coronavirus is. The big difference here is that unlike the flu, there is no vaccine for this new coronavirus which is cause for concern among the elderly, who are usually at risk for such viruses, and those with existing respiratory or immune issues.
The Elderly Are Vulnerable
Although younger victims of this virus seem to fare well against it, the elderly do not. These concerns can be highlighted by the victims of this virus thus far. Among its first 17 victims, 13 were men and 4 were women, with the youngest being a 48-year-old woman. The oldest cases were two 89-year-old men with the median age being 75. As with many seniors, they had underlying conditions like cirrhosis of the liver, hypertension, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Most spent more than a week in hospitals, with some undergoing treatment for a month or longer before dying.
This infection is being taken seriously in Asia as authorities are mobilizing to find the cause and stop the infection. Dr. Guan Yi, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Hong Kong visited Wuhan and warned that there was a potential for the virus to spread rapidly despite the precautions taken by the Chinese.
According to Guan, “the path of the coronavirus could prove harder to trace and control than SARS when a small number of highly infectious superspreaders helped transmit the disease to a large number of people.”
“I’ve experienced a lot, and I’ve never felt scared, most of these are controllable,” he said, citing previous battles with SARS, avian influenza and other outbreaks. “But this time I’m scared.”
The best advice at this point is to take the same precautions that we do with the flu or common cold - wash your hands, cover your cough, stay informed and if symptoms do appear, contact a medical provider.