Is it time to worry about the newest coronavirus from Wuhan? Experts say coronavirus is not worth panicking over in the U.S. at the moment, but it's a great time to get your hand hygiene game in top shape. Here's what you need to know about the virus that's all over the news right now.
First, you're probably wondering about the basics. "The name coronavirus describes a family of viruses that can be found in many different kinds of birds and mammals," Dr. Timothy Sheahan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health, tells Romper. "The name 'corona' is Latin for 'crown.' When viewed under the microscope, the virus has these spike-like protrusions that look like a royal’s crown." Like any other kind of virus, the coronavirus can be transmitted by touching infected objects (or people). So why is this particular virus generating so much concern right now? "This coronavirus is a novel virus that originated in bats and spread to humans in the Wuhan district of China in December of 2019," Dr. Anthony Fehr, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biosciences, coronavirus expert, and researcher at the University of Kansas, tells Romper. "It is very similar to the SARS-coronavirus that emerged back in 2002."
Anyone who was around in the early aughts likely remembers the intense SARS outbreaks. "SARS was the first human coronavirus to cause severe respiratory disease, ultimately causing over 8,000 cases, 10% of which resulted in death," says Dr. Sheahan. "It spread throughout the globe by air travel of infected people, sending the virus to over 30 countries outside of China." This new virus is giving people all over the globe some serious SARS flashbacks.
Plus, early reports about the coronavirus conditions in China are concerning. In China, the coronavirus has caused the death of over 100 individuals, according to USA Today. A travel lockdown has affected 35 million residents in China across 12 cities, The New York Times reported, all in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. As of January 27, U.S. citizens are asked to reconsider travel to China because of the coronavirus, per the U.S. Department of State.
Still, that doesn't mean there's reason to panic.
"All cases in the U.S. are of people that have recently traveled to Wuhan," says Dr. Fehr. "Here in the States, I don’t think it’s worth stressing about yet, although there are now 4 confirmed cases here. As long as our patients are identified quickly and their contacts can be traced for monitoring, I am hopeful that we can keep this under control here," says Dr. Sheahan. (The CDC has since confirmed a fifth case of coronavirus in the U.S., reported NBC News.) Of course, the threat of any contagious illness should be taken seriously. "If even 1% of our population got the infection, our hospitals would be overflowing," says Dr. Fehr. "Elderly individuals and especially those with other medical problems (i.e. diabetes, immuno-compromised) are at greater risk of severe disease and death caused by this virus. We should be doing everything we can to prevent the spread of this virus." For public health officials this may involve early diagnosis and the quarantining of individuals with the virus, but regular folk can take precautions, too.
To help stem the spread of coronavirus, follow many of the same hygiene practices that keep you safer during cold and flu season. "The best thing you can do is practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands often. Try to wash after you’ve been out in a populated place," says Dr. Sheahan. "If you live in a major metropolitan area with a big international airport (hello L.A., Chicago, NYC, San Fran, etc.), I would be especially vigilant in hand washing and try to stay away from people that sound sick."
"Anything we can do to reduce our exposure, it could prevent us from getting sick," Dr. Fehr agrees. "So wash your hands after being out, wash your hands after going to the bathroom, wash your hands before eating, just wash your hands, ok?" (For the curious, there's a way to properly wash your hands to keep them super sanitary.)
For people traveling outside the U.S. at this time, there are a few extra precautions to keep in mind. "If you are traveling internationally and come back to the States, I would keep a close eye on my health and alert the public health authorities if you develop flu like symptoms... cough, sneezing, fever, headache, body aches, runny nose, etc.," says Dr. Sheahan. Don't hesitate to visit your doctor for a checkup.
On the prevention side of things, is there any chance of getting vaccinated against this coronavirus? Probably not in the near future. "While I have no direct knowledge, I am sure that vaccine development has started. However, this takes several months, if not a year or more, to be developed," says Dr. Fehr, adding that testing the vaccines will take even longer. "So, this whole thing may be over by the time a vaccine is available," says Dr. Sheahan.
In fact, there's no simple cure or preventative when it comes to coronaviruses. "There are no approved therapies for any human coronavirus. No vaccines. No drugs. Nothing. This has to change," says Dr. Sheahan. "This outbreak serves as a prime example that we need therapies that not only work against past and current epidemic coronavirus, but also those that may emerge in the future."
Going forward, supporting further coronavirus research is crucial. "Coronaviruses have now caused epidemics in each decade of the 21st century, and with a large diversity of CoVs found in bats and other mammals throughout the world, it is likely that these outbreaks of severe human disease will continue," says Dr. Fehr. "Thus it is important that we continue to research these viruses and develop many different antiviral therapies and vaccines so that we can limit the amount of severe disease caused by these viruses." Hopefully in the future, the outbreak of a new coronavirus won't be quite so alarming.
Dr. Anthony Fehr, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biosciences, coronavirus expert, and researcher at the University of Kansas