An outbreak of a new strain of the coronavirus has sparked worries of a global epidemic around what health officials have dubbed the novel coronavirus, also referred to as the Wuhan or new coronavirus.
Coronavirus is a broad family of viruses, ranging from strains that can be treated like the common cold to ones like MERS and SARS which can cause pneumonia, kidney failure and death. A SARS outbreak had also posed a public health crisis for China from 2002 to 2003, claiming the lives of nearly 800 people. The novel coronavirus is the latest strain related to these.
Mild cases of the novel coronavirus can include a fever, cough, shortness of breath and a headache. More severe cases have lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.
As of late Monday, at least 106 fatalities have been blamed on the new coronavirus, according to some reports. More than 4,500 infections have been confirmed in China, and at least 100 of the fatalities have occurred in the central province of Hubei, the center of the outbreak. The youngest confirmed case is that of a 9-month-old girl in Beijing.
Also on Monday, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory in which it urged Americans to reconsider traveling to China. And the CDC issued an advisory, saying it “recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China.”
This family of viruses, named after their crown-like shape, are zoonotic, essentially meaning that they can be transmitted between animals and people.
A wild animal market in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, has been widely seen as the epicenter of the current outbreak, and the sale of wild animals has since been banned for the duration of the crisis.
The transmission of the virus between people is similar to how a common cold is spread – through coughing, sneezing and close contact. This means it’s more common in fall and winter, where people are indoors and in contact with others, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health officials in China have said their understanding of the novel coronavirus remains “limited.” But, according to The South China Morning Post, Ma Xiaowei, the head of China’s National Health Commission, said that the virus, unlike SARS, is contagious even during its incubation period, which can be as long as 14 days.
On Monday in a press conference, CDC Director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Dr. Nancy Messonnier said that the CDC has found no evidence that people with the virus are asymptomatic, or have the ability to spread the virus while not experiencing any symptoms themselves.
In response to the outbreak, authorities have shut down transportation in Wuhan and at least 12 other cities near the epicenter of the virus, affecting some 50 million people during one of the country’s prime holidays, which includes one of the largest annual human migrations in the world – the Chinese Lunar New Year.
“Risk depends on exposure,” CDC Director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Messonnier told reporters during a press conference on Monday.
The CDC is currently using similar strains of the virus like MERS and SARS to guide their research on how it might behave in terms of transmission in different scenarios and environments.
On Monday, Messonnier addressed concerns about if the virus could be transmitted through contact with items shipped from China.
“In general because of the poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces … there is likely a very, very, very low, if any, risk of spread from products or packaging that is shipped over a period of days or weeks in ambient temperatures,” Messonnier said.
According to the 2010 study “Effects of Air Temperature and Relative Humidity on Coronavirus Survival and Surfaces,” by Lisa M. Casanova, et al., air temperature and relative humidity both impact the survival of other coronavirus strains on stainless steel.
The study found that the infectious virus could survive longer at lower temperatures and inactivation, or the point where the virus can no longer affect people, occurred more rapidly around room temperatures or warmer environments. In the lower temperatures, the virus could survive on a stainless steel surface from 5 to 28 days at all humidity levels. It took longer for inactivation to occur with a low relative humidity, or a drier environment. In short, the coronaviruses typically survive longer and stay active longer at lower temperatures in a dry environment.
A handful of neighboring nations such as Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan Japan, Malaysia and South Korea have all reported a handful of cases. There have also been reported cases in France, Canada and the United States, but there have been no deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus virus outside of China.
All five cases confirmed in the United States involve someone who had returned to the country from Wuhan, according to the CDC.
Since transmission involves close contact, the CDC has recommended preventive actions as if preventing the flu or the common cold. This includes washing your hands often, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, frequently disinfecting and cleaning frequently touched objects and surfaces and staying at home when you are sick.