The new coronavirus, officially named Covid-19, is a novel virus from the ‎Coronaviridae family which causes respiratory infection. The current outbreak and spread in China and beyond its borders has been declared a global health emergency by WHO.

What Is It?

This is an enveloped virus that causes respiratory symptoms such as breathing difficulties, shortness of breath, cough, and fever. Some patients develop complications such as kidney failure, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and pneumonia. Symptoms usually appear 2 to 14 days after infection.

The current mortality rate stands at 3.1 percent in the Hubei Province, 4.9 percent in Wuhan, and 0.16 percent in the rest of China. Nationwide, the mortality rate is 2.1 percent. Little is known about transmission and is mainly based on similarity to other coronaviruses. The virus is thought to spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person touches a surface or object, sneezes, or coughs. The main transmission paths appear to be close personal contact and by air. Scientists are still investigating on factors such as severity and transmissibility.

Where It Came from?

Scientists suspect that the novel virus originated in bats but it is still unclear how it was transmitted to humans. Other viruses such as Ebola, SARS, HIV, and measles are known to have jumped from animals to humans. Covid-19 is a zoonotic virus meaning that it can pass from humans to animals and vice versa. According to scientists, an intermediary animal passed the virus from bats to humans. Chinese researchers believe that the pangolin, which is an illegally trafficked animal, passed the virus to humans. The problem of pinpointing first exposure is that illegal offerings at Chinese markets are usually kept in back freezers. And while in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing demand for exotic animals is low, markets in provincial cities offer all kinds of exotic species, including wolf puppies, hedgehogs, scorpions, salamanders, badgers, and pangolins. This makes it difficult to identify the intermediary animal that passed the virus.

The disease likely started in the Wuhan market where vendors offer live animals, poultry, and meat. Wet markets increase the risk of transmission because humans are in close contact with all sorts of animals.

Prevention, Treatment Therapies, and Vaccine Development

It is important for people to know the difference between common cold and the new coronavirus. While the main symptoms of Covid-19 are cough, fever, and shortness of breath, people having common cold develop symptoms such as sore throat, cough, headache, and runny nose. More generally, common cold is an upper respiratory tract infection while the new coronavirus is a lower respiratory tract infection. Currently, there is no treatment or vaccine to treat patients and prevent infection.

Hospitals around the world experiment with different combinations of antiviral drugs, including Kaletra which is a protease inhibitor used to treat HIV patients. The drug helps block an enzyme that enables viruses to replicate. This therapy was previously administered to persons infected with MERS in Saudi Arabia. China’s state-owned pharmaceutical producer has also found that the antibodies produced by recovered patients help reduce virus loads. Plasma containing antibodies has been used to treat critically ill patients. A vaccine against the new virus is still not available. According to WHO experts, it will take another 18 months to study the behavior and characteristics of the virus, conduct animal tests, and run human trials. Different research groups and pharmaceutical companies around the world are working on developing a vaccine, including the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Imperial College in London.

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