Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the coronavirus that has killed dozens of people in China.
What is a coronavirus?
According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that range from the common cold to much more serious diseases. These diseases can infect humans and animals. The strain spreading in China is related to two other coronaviruses that have caused major outbreaks in recent years: Middle East respiratory syndrome, also known as MERS, and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
Symptoms of a coronavirus infection range from respiratory problems, difficulty breathing, fever and cough, to the much more severe cases of pneumonia, kidney failure, acute respiratory syndrome (when fluid builds up in the lungs) and death. The elderly, the young and those with an already weakened immune system are at a higher risk of developing severe lower-respiratory tract diseases, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health officials haven’t identified this latest strain in humans before. That’s why, for now, it has the generic name of “a novel coronavirus” while they investigate. As it’s a virus, antibiotics won’t work in treating it.
How does it spread?
In rare cases, coronaviruses can spread from animals, such as camels and bats, to humans. (Household pets are not a threat.) Health officials report that that’s what has happened here. In even rarer cases, that same virus can spread from human to human.
WHO officials are investigating suspected cases of that now. In a worrying development, Chinese officials said that they have documented cases of human-to-human transmission, meaning it can spread to humans through airborne droplets. The exact ways its spread and the incubation period are still under investigation.
Chinese health authorities said they first detected the new strain of the virus Dec. 31 in Wuhan, a city in central China. They initially linked it to a dirty food market where seafood and mammals were sold for human consumption. Officials closed the market the next day. What probably happened, scientists said, is that people ate something infected with the virus or touched something and then became infected.
The next set of patients are those who reported that they did not come into contact with that market but had gone to other markets, or had contact with others in Wuhan. Chinese officials have also documented patients and health-care workers who had no contact with Wuhan.
In cases of human-to-human transmission, the disease can spread through coughing and sneezing, personal contact with an infected person, touching an infected surface and then the mouth, nose or eyes, and, in rare cases, through fecal contamination.
How do you protect against it?
To protect against infection, the CDC recommends basic hygiene techniques for respiratory viruses such as constantly washing hands, staying hydrated, avoiding contact with one’s face or anyone who’s sick, sanitizing surfaces, and coughing into one’s arm or a tissue. If there’s a fear of animal transmission, CDC officials urge people to wash hands after contact with animals and thoroughly cook any meat before consumption.
What do we know about how new cases have spread?
One challenge to investigating and stopping the virus: Public health experts say that Chinese authorities have not provided full information about how the disease is spreading.
To control the outbreak, it’s critical to know whether cases being found in other cities are all related to Wuhan. If the disease has been circulating independently in other parts of the country, that information will not only affect how China acts to contain it, but how other public health agencies in the world seek to prevent its spread, said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Most people sickened and killed by the virus have been elderly, had pre-existing health conditions, and lived in Hubei province, specifically its capital of Wuhan.
But Chinese health authorities announced that a 36-year-old man from Wuhan died last week: He had no chronic diseases or other previous health problems and had been treated with anti-virus medications since checking into the hospital on Jan. 9.
Where has it spread?
So far, most cases have been in Wuhan, though there are confirmed cases all across China. At least three cases are being investigated in the United States.
Officials in Thailand and Japan were the first outside of China to reports cases of infected travelers from Wuhan on Jan. 13 and 15.
Australia and the Philippines are investigating suspected cases. Last week, Hong Kong and Macao confirmed their first infected patients, joining South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Nepal, France and Taiwan, which have each reported cases of the virus.
What’s being done to stop it in China?
Last week, Chinese health authorities initially imposed a quasi-quarantine on Wuhan, limiting travel to the city, which is home to 11 million people. They did so in part because the Lunar New Year is a time when people often travel to their hometowns.
That’s also why Chinese authorities may be hesitant to impose a total travel ban; they are reluctant to entirely disrupt the holiday, which is also a time of heavy commerce important to China’s economy.
Then they banned all outbound travel from Wuhan, which remains the center of the outbreak.
What’s happening at airports?
Chinese authorities are screening people at airports for coronavirus symptoms. Other airports in Asia are doing the same. North Korea has entirely banned foreign tourists, the majority of whom are Chinese nationals and travel via China, as a precaution.
Federal health authorities in the United States announced late last week that they would immediately begin screening passengers for the virus who are flying into three international airports popular with Chinese travelers – Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York’s John F. Kennedy. They later added international airports in Chicago and Atlanta to the list.
The screening includes taking temperatures; those with high temperatures could be singled out for additional tests. While screening for a common virus usually takes just hours, health authorities said that people with suspected cases could miss their connecting flights as the testing could take up to a day.
What about face masks?
Masks intended to filter out airborne particles, like surgical masks, are useful but have a limited effect, according to public health officials. In the United States, where the threat of contracting the virus is low, they are not needed; but in China, health officials are recommending people wear them.
Infectious disease experts stressed that masks need to be properly put on and taken off in order to be effective.
The CDC recommends that any health-care workers interacting with coronavirus patients or suspected cases wear a stronger kind of mask, known as the N95 respirator, along with other gear such as gloves and eye protectors.