New Virus, 2019-nCoV, Causes Pneumonia and Sparks Concern Worldwide

January 24, 2020

January 27: Due to the quick pace of developments regarding the spread of this virus, the numbers in this article are outdated. Please see Novel Coronavirus Update for more information.

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With the ease of world travel today, it’s not surprising that diseases spread faster than they ever did before. It’s for this reason that people around the world are reading– and worrying – about a new virus, a novel coronavirus, that appeared in China at the end of 2019. For some people, it brings back memories and fears from the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003. This virus also spread around the world, affecting over 8,000 people in 29 countries and regions; 774 people died. There were 156 suspected cases in the United States. Canada had reports of 438 cases over five months, 44 of whom died. So, what makes this new virus different and should we worry?

The virus, scientifically known as 2019-nCoV, is from the same family of viruses as SARS, and another similar outbreak called MERS, or Middle East respiratory virus, which was first reported in 2012. Experts don’t yet know how this new coronavirus was spreading and initially, they didn’t know if it would pass from person to person. However, it has been confirmed that the virus is spreading between humans.

The virus was first noted in China, when doctors discovered some patients were presenting with an unusual form of pneumonia. As of today, China has reported that 26 people have died from this virus there have been more than 900 confirmed cases in the country. Chinese authorities have indicated that patients who died from 2019-nCoV were mostly older and already ill with other health problems, such as COPD, hypertension, diabetes, and stroke, to name a few. Other countries reporting the virus are Thailand (5 cases), Singapore (3), Taiwan (3), Hong Kong (2), Macau (2), South Korea (2), U.S. (2), and Vietnam (2), according to the most up-to-date numbers gathered by researchers at Johns Hopkins. But according to an article written by Julia Beluz for Vox, the number may be much higher, as not all cases may have been identified. Researchers in London and Hong Kong believe the number of affected people could be over 4,000.

Although researchers aren’t absolutely sure about how 2019-nCoV is spread and how easily, most coronaviruses are spread through droplets in the air (from coughing and sneezing), touching an object that has the virus on it (such as a door handle or elevator button) and touching your face, or shaking hands or touching someone who has the virus on the skin and then touching your face. In rare cases, some viruses can live in fecal material, and this can also spread the illness.

Symptoms of 2019-nCoV include:

  • Fever, although recently there have been reports that not everyone infected with the virus had a fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

During their physical examinations, CT scans showed that all the patients had lung abnormalities – their air sacs were inflamed – and pneumonia.

Should people in other countries be concerned about this new virus? The World Health Organization (WHO) is monitoring the situation closely. China has quarantined three cities in the hopes of preventing further spread. Some countries, like the U.S. and Canada have instituted airport screenings in main ports of entry through which passengers from China are screened for illness. Because the symptoms are very much like any common cold or even the seasonal influenza, determining which type of virus a patient has can only be done through lab testing.

As this is a new virus, there is no vaccine and, unlike a bacterial infection, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. Prevention is key. Travelers are advised to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently when out and about, and to avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth. Many in China have taken to wearing face masks. While this can be helpful, unless you are wearing the mask correctly, which many people don’t, they may provide a false sense of security. It’s not unusual to see someone wearing a face mask just over their mouth and not their nose. It’s also not uncommon to see someone lifting their face mask to touch their face or nose, or take off the mask and then put it back on later.

Learn more about sepsis and viral infections, and sepsis and pneumonia, which are part of the Sepsis and… library of information available to the public.