Earlier this week, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of a new coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. This formal declaration, invoked only for the sixth time, is made during “an extraordinary event” which poses a threat to public health in different countries and which “potentially require a coordinated international response.”
True to the spirit of collaboration and cooperation in science, the worldwide scientific community was quick to begin sharing information with the goal of finding a way to control the spread of the disease and help those infected.
While the virus was discovered only in late December 2019, scientists already know a lot about it in a matter of weeks. Given how even preprints of studies usually take months of painstaking research and back and forth between different researchers, the amount of data we already have about the virus this early is impressive. It is also important and life-saving.
So, what do we know so far?
First, we know that the current outbreak is caused by a coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can infect animals such as humans and birds.
Coronaviruses get their name from their appearance of having “crowns” or “halos” when viewed under specialized microscopes called electron microscopes.
Viruses are not easily seen under the usual optical microscope in most laboratories. When placed next to bacteria, viruses are generally a lot smaller. Most viruses are too small for the microscopes we use to look at bacteria or animal cells.
Most scientists do not consider viruses alive. That is because viruses do not pass several of the criteria for something to be alive. Instead, viruses are just bits of genes packaged inside a protein casing. In the case of coronaviruses, their genes are made of molecules called RNA and their protein casing gives them the appearance of having “crowns”. Viruses are able to spread only because they can hijack living cells, making those cells make more copies of the virus so that the virus can spread to even more cells.
There are many different kinds of coronavirus. They range from common strains that cause milder symptoms like common cold, to rarer forms like the ones that caused Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which caused the outbreak in late 2002 to early 2003. The new coronavirus responsible for the current outbreak causes pneumonia, which can result in difficulty breathing and, in the worst cases, could lead to death.
Identifying the type of coronavirus causing a particular disease requires advanced techniques and a copy of genetic information of the newest types.
Second, we know that the coronavirus causing the current outbreak is new, hence the term “novel coronavirus.” Designated 2019-nCoV, this novel coronavirus began infecting humans only late last year.
Scientists also think that this new coronavirus likely came from bats. Like the coronavirus that caused SARS, the new coronavirus shares a lot of similarities to viruses found in bats.
As with the SARS coronavirus, scientists think there was another animal that allowed the novel coronavirus to make the jump from bats to people. This jump happened in the city of Wuhan in mainland China. This is the reason why Wuhan and surrounding areas have found the highest rates of infection of the virus.
While scientists have made great strides in understanding 2019-nCoV in the short amount of time between now and the first human infection, there are still some very important questions to be answered in the coming days.
One of these questions is how quickly the virus can be spread from one person to another. Another question is how doctors can help patients already infected by the virus.
Unfortunately, there are no vaccines or antiviral drugs approved for the prevention or treatment of infection due to coronavirus. Because they are not made of living cells like bacteria, viruses like 2019-nCoV cannot be killed by antibiotics. The only way for an infected person to recover is for their immune system to fight the virus.
While the scientists are working hard at containing the spread of this new virus, it is important to note that the best way to protect ourselves against infection is just the basics. Always wash your hands, and do it with soap and running water. Eat foods that help strengthen your immune system.
After all, we always live with viruses and other harmful agents that can potentially kill us. The flu virus, for example, kills tens of thousands every year. May the unfortunate spread of this new coronavirus wake us up into always being alert about our health.