The New Coronavirus: What Is It, and Should You Worry?
An infectious disease specialist explains what’s known (and what isn’t) so far about the 2019 novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV.
In recent weeks, a new respiratory virus dubbed “2019 novel coronavirus,” or 2019-nCoV, was identified in China.
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Now, the first cases have been confirmed in the U.S.
“Like any novel infection that’s reported, it’s certainly a public health concern,” says Steven Gordon, MD, Chairman of the Department of Infectious Disease. But he adds that it’s not yet clear what course the virus will take — or how contagious it is.
The 2019 novel coronavirus is part of a large family of viruses that range in severity. It’s in the same category of infections as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
“The coronavirus is one of the causes of the common cold, but this 2019 novel coronavirus (meaning one that has not been seen before), was attributed to a lot of cases of upper respiratory tract infection, and some pneumonias were reported,” Dr. Gordon explains.
The 2019 novel coronavirus can be spread from person to person through close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the virus — that means being within 6 feet of them for an extended period of time. Symptoms are what one would expect from a typical upper respiratory virus, including cough and fever.
While most people who contract the virus will recover on their own, people who have a weakened immune system (the elderly, the very young and those with underlying medical conditions) could be at risk for a more serious infection.
Severe cases can lead to pneumonia, difficulty breathing and death.
Information about the 2019 novel coronavirus continues to emerge. And while Dr. Gordon expects more cases will be reported, the CDC says it currently considers that the immediate health risk to the American public is low.
He also notes that, so far, the death rate associated with the 2019 novel coronavirus has been lower than that of SARS and much lower than MERS.
“Anyone that has traveled to China may be fearful. But right now, the CDC’s focus is on Hubei Province in China where the outbreaks over the past two weeks originated — either by exposure to someone who was ill or who is under investigation with infection,” Dr. Gordon says.
While there is no specific treatment for the 2019 novel coronavirus, the best way to protect against it and any other upper respiratory virus is to practice good cold and flu season hygiene, Dr. Gordon says.
In fact, in the midst of flu season, Dr. Gordon says the flu should be of greater concern to the public right now.
Actions to prevent the spread of viruses include:
The National Institutes of Health says it’s in the early stages of developing a vaccine for the 2019 novel coronavirus.