What Is It?
The new coronavirus first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in early December. The virus is in the same family of pathogens that cause the flu and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).
The World Health Organization on Feb. 11 officially named the disease “COVID-19,” an acronym for coronavirus disease 2019. Researchers are still unsure of the source of the virus, nor is there an immediate cure available.
What Are Its Symptoms?
The most common symptoms of the virus are fever, coughing, and difficulty breathing, although Chinese researchers have noted other symptoms, such as fatigue, diarrhea, chest pains, and headaches.
The incubation period—or amount of time from exposure to the onset of symptoms—is up to 14 days. However, a recent study from Chinese researchers, which examined over 1,000 cases of the disease, found a patient who didn’t exhibit symptoms for as long as 24 days.
A Chinese health official in Jinzhong, a city in Shanxi Province, noted the case of a patient who was hospitalized 40 days after traveling to Wuhan. She was diagnosed two days after hospitalization.
How Contagious Is It?
Preliminary research suggests the disease is moderately infectious, similar to SARS. Scientists have estimated that each patient could infect between 1.5 to 3.5 people in the absence of containment measures.
Health experts have confirmed that the virus is contagious even when the infected person has not yet exhibited symptoms.
There’s still no consensus as to how potent the virus is.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Wednesday expressed concerns that the virus could “take a foothold” inside the United States, saying that at some point, “we are likely to see community spread in the U.S. or in other countries,” according to a press conference.
How Is It Transmitted?
Most human transmission cases thus far have occurred among those with close contact to a patient—likely spread through airborne particles when an infected person coughs or sneezes, according to the CDC.
On Feb. 5, doctors at a Wuhan children’s hospital confirmed a case of a coronavirus patient giving birth to a baby who later tested positive for the virus—meaning that a pregnant woman with the virus can pass it on to her child.
One may also contract the virus through indirect transmission—that is, touching the surface of a contaminated object, then touching vulnerable areas such as one’s mouth, nose, or eyes, allowing the virus to gain access into the body.
It’s unclear how long the coronavirus can survive on inanimate surfaces. Jiang Rongmeng, an expert with China’s National Health Commission, recently put the duration at several hours to up to five days. SARS, for comparison, can stay active for two days on disposable gowns, five days on metal, and four days on glass, according to a study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection.
Chinese researchers have also raised concerns that the virus can spread through fecal contamination. According to a recent study, four out of 62 stool samples had traces of the virus.
Hong Kong health officials have evacuated a residential building and launched an investigation into this possible transmission route after two people on separate floors became sick with the disease. Authorities suspect that that virus may have leaked through the bathroom pipes.
How to Stay Safe
The CDC agency advises that people not travel to China, that they avoid contact with infected patients, and wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Currently, there is still no need for the general public to wear face masks, the CDC said.
Aneesh Mehta, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the Emory University School of Medicine, reiterated the importance of good personal hygiene practices.
Because of potential contact transmission, one should always be mindful of hand hygiene, and make good use of sanitizer and water, Mehta said.
“When you are out in public, anytime you touch a surface, and before you touch your face or touching the food, you should clean your hand,” he said. “I think you just have to be cognizant of what you’re touching.”
A 2014 behavior observation study on medical students at the University of New South Wales in Australia found that participants, on average, touched their faces 23 times per hour.
Wearing gloves, he said, does not necessarily mitigate the health risk, as people can unintentionally infect themselves if they pick up the virus in a public setting and then touch their face with their gloves on.
To reduce the risk of possible contamination through fecal matter, Sean Lin, a former virology researcher for the U.S. Army, also suggested closing the lid when flushing.
Experts have also recommended regularly cleaning the house with disinfectants. According to the Journal of Hospital Infection study, ethanol at a concentration level between 62 percent and 71 percent can reduce infectivity of coronaviruses within one minute of exposure; 0.1- 0.5% sodium hypochlorite (the compound found in bleach) is also effective.