What is Coronavirus?

Duke experts offer a quick explainer and what we know about the new coronavirus in China

Microscopic view of a coronavirus.

Microscopic view of a coronavirus. The word "corona" means crown-like and refers to the spiky projections on the virus' surface.

By Mary Brophy Marcus

Published January 24, 2020, last updated on July 27, 2020 under Research News

This story was updated on January 29, 2020, at 2pm EST

Duke experts offer a quick explainer and what we know about the new coronavirus in China

As worries escalate over a new coronavirus that recently emerged in China, questions are popping up about the illness it causes, which has sickened more than 6,000 people and has led to at least 132 deaths.*

The novel infection’s “ground zero” is the city of Wuhan, in Central China, but cases have been reported in other countries, including Japan, Thailand, Korea, and the U.S.

Dr. Gregory C. Gray, an infectious disease epidemiologist, physician, and professor at Duke University, says the virus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, still remains mysterious.

“We don’t yet know much about this particular virus,” he says.

However, coronaviruses themselves aren’t new, so we can draw a picture of what they’re capable of from history. There are common types that spread between humans and cause cold-like symptoms—a runny nose, headache, cough, fever, sore throat, and general sluggishness and discomfort—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

These mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract viruses get their name from the crown-like spikes that can be seen under magnification on their surfaces and affect most people at some point in their lives. Infections typically last for a few days, maybe a couple of weeks, then are gone.

But sometimes, human coronaviruses can lead to pneumonia or bronchitis, especially in people with weaker immune systems, including babies and seniors. This has been the case for some infected with 2019-nCoV.

Two serious types of coronavirus include MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV. While MERs is still around in some parts of the world, SARS hasn’t been seen since 2004, according to the CDC. In both cases, the viruses developed first in animals and spread to humans. It’s hypothesized that human infections with the new virus may have begun with exposure to animals in a live animal market in Wuhan.

There are numerous ways to help contain the spread of the current coronavirus, says Gray, including hand washing, covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing, and minimizing contact with others when ill. The CDC is also recommending that people with the new coronavirus don a face mask to prevent spread of the disease. In particularly threatening situations, public health officials may choose to isolate patients in medical facilities, put patients’ close contacts in quarantine, ban public gatherings, and close down transportation, moves officials in Wuhan and other cities in China have already made.

In a recent interview with NPR, Linfa Wang, a virologist at Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School, said while shutting down travel in heavily-affected areas seems extreme, “When you're dealing with infectious disease, overreaction might be better than underreaction.”

Wang is a member of a World Health Organization emergency committee monitoring the spread of the disease closely.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health said this week that scientists are also already working on a new vaccine to prevent the novel virus and hope human trials could be underway within the next few months.

Gray says new collaborative partnerships need to take place between agricultural businesses, and human health, animal health, and environmental health experts in order to help control the spread of emerging viruses like 2019-nCoV.

“If we have early detection and mitigation strategies developed before a novel virus crosses over to infect humans, we may be able to reduce the virus’ threat,” says Gray. 

Duke officials and infectious disease specialists are continuing to closely monitor the new coronavirus outbreak and sharing updates on the Duke Today website. The Duke community can check back there for updates. 

*This story was last updated at 2pm EST on January 29, 2020. Data on cases comes from the World Health Organization's Situation Report - 9.

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