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Your Most Pressing Questions About the Coronavirus, Answered

Do masks help? Should you avoid airports? The latest advice to keep you informed and safe.



Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty Images


The Wuhan coronavirus is a newly discovered strain of a family of viruses that infect animals and sometimes humans. Below are some common questions (and answers) about the rapidly spreading outbreak, officially called the “2019 novel coronavirus” or 2019-nCoV.


Where did this new coronavirus virus come from?


The virus is thought to have originated in one or more animal species, possibly including bats. In December 2019, the first cases in humans were detected, in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Early cases are believed to involve people who had been to a large animal and seafood market. A genetic analysis is underway to try to pin down the source(s). Two previous human outbreaks of coronaviruses — severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — both originated in animals.


How contagious is this coronavirus?


The virus is now known to spread from human to human. But how easily is not yet determined. Any given virus can spread reluctantly or be highly contagious. Measles, for example, is far more contagious than early analyses of this coronavirus indicate, says Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


One reason the disease appears to be spreading rapidly may be due to delays in confirming early cases, given that the ability to test for the virus is limited to a few specialized labs, including in China and at the CDC, says Dr. Wilbur Chen, associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.


“As this case confirmation process becomes more speedy, the reporting of cases will appear to be faster — not necessarily because of the disease spreading faster, but because of the ability to identify and confirm cases becomes faster,” Chen says. “Nonetheless, we also believe that the 2019-nCoV is efficient in transmission, meaning that it is capable of spreading fast.”


How deadly is it?


That can’t be determined yet. The outbreak is in its early days, so the cases in China that have been confirmed are likely the more serious cases, health experts say. As the outbreak unfolds and more people get sick, it may turn out that there are many more cases that are milder, which would change the picture of how deadly the virus is.


How do people catch it?


Scientists don’t know for sure the ways in which this coronavirus most easily spreads. But past coronaviruses — MERS and SARS — were thought to be transmitted through coughs and sneezes, just like the flu, so it’s likely this coronavirus also spreads through respiratory droplets, the CDC says. That means close contact with others would be key to its spread.


Meanwhile, it’s not known whether or how long the virus might survive in droplets on hard surfaces, such as doorknobs or countertops. But we know the common cold virus (which is also a coronavirus) can last “a couple hours to maybe a couple days,” depending on temperature, humidity, and other factors, says Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious disease expert at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University. Adalja tells Elemental that the same might be true of this virus, but he thinks surfaces are not likely the main form of transmission.


For example, it’s unlikely any coronavirus would survive as a stowaway on or inside packages mailed from China to the United States. “In general, because of the poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, that’s in the range of hours, there’s likely a very, very, very low if any risk of spread from products or packaging that is shipped over a period of days or weeks in ambient temperatures,” Messonnier says.


How can you protect yourself and others?


Prevention advice mirrors the tactics for avoiding or spreading the flu, the common cold, and other diseases:

  • Frequently and correctly wash your hands, scrubbing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

  • If you’re sick, stay home. Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your elbow — not your hands or into the air.


Do surgical masks help?


Masks are an important line of defense against disease transmission in hospitals, but there is little research on whether they work for the general public. The key, experts say, is wearing a mask that fits properly and wearing it consistently. “They don’t hurt and may offer some protection,” Adalja says. But if you stick an infected hand under the mask to scratch an itch, you’ve rendered the mask useless, he points out.


Should you worry about being at an airport or flying internationally?


“Do not travel to China,” the U.S. State Department says. That’s Level 4 travel alert — the most strict.


Health officials have not advised people to worry about travel in general. Federal officials have not suggested anyone limit domestic travel.


U.S. officials are also expanding their health checks of inbound travelers from five airports to 20. (It is not yet clear which countries’ flights might be affected.) These inbound travelers are screened with a noncontact thermal device to check their temperatures, and officials look for coughing or sneezing. The passengers also answer questions about their travel, any possible symptoms, and whether they came in contact with infected people.


What are the symptoms of coronavirus?


Some infected people have reported little to no symptoms, the CDC says. In others, symptoms include fever, cough, and shortness of breath and can range from mild to severe, causing death.

Much remains to be learned about the progression of the illness, but the CDC thinks symptoms show up as quickly as two days after exposure or as late as 14 days — a range seen previously in MERS. It is not yet clear, Messonnier says, whether a person can transmit the virus before symptoms appear.


How can you tell coronavirus symptoms from a cold or the flu?


“You really can’t,” Adalja says. The symptoms are “indistinguishable” from those of the flu and other respiratory infections, he says. Given the high number of flu cases in the United States right now, the only reason you might suspect you have coronavirus is if you’ve traveled to China or another infected area or if you’ve come in contact with someone diagnosed with this coronavirus, Adalja says. In such cases, the CDC asks that you contact a health care provider.


Is there a vaccine?


No. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health and other agencies are working on one, but don’t hold your breath. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on January 28 that he’s cautiously optimistic there may soon be a vaccine candidate ready for phase one clinical trials. But the testing and analysis during such a trial would likely take several months before any vaccine would be ready for widespread use, he said.


Are there any treatments or therapies for this virus?


“There is no proven therapy,” but there are antiviral medications shown to work in past outbreaks, Fauci says. The CDC and other agencies are studying specimens from infected people, in lab settings, to see whether any of these treatments might be effective against this strain of the virus.


How bad could the outbreak become?


Nobody knows just yet, and health officials are loathe to speculate. The potential extent of this outbreak depends on how easily it spreads between humans, and scientists haven’t figured that out yet.


“We are constantly preparing for the possibility that the situation could worsen,” says U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. He called the virus “potentially a very serious health threat” in the United States, but characterized the threat as low right now.


Is this the worst viral outbreak ever?


Not by a long shot.


In recent decades, two other suddenly infectious coronaviruses plagued humans. The 2003 outbreak of SARS spread to 8,098 people across four continents, killing about 10% of those infected; only eight cases were confirmed in the United States, and no deaths. MERS cropped up in humans in 2012 and has since spread to 2,494 people in 27 countries, killing about a third of its victims.


For perspective, other viruses that have crossed from animals to humans include HIV/AIDS, which has killed about 32 million people. Multiple outbreaks of Ebola, a virus carried by fruit bats and now transmitted between humans, have on average killed half of the people who contract it, but some outbreaks have reached 90% fatality rates.


Various strains of the flu virus kill between 291,000 and 646,000 people globally each year. In the United States, influenza infects between 9 million and 45 million people annually, resulting in 12,000 to 61,000 deaths each year.


A century ago, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918–19 killed more than 50 million people in a single year (some estimates are double that figure), including 675,000 in the United States — all at a time when the global population was one-fourth of today’s number. Experts say one-third of the world’s population got the flu that year.


The data on global flu deaths in an earlier version of this article and the travel alert have been updated.


Source: Elemental Author: Robert Roy Britt

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