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Preventative measures should be taken to avoid contact with new coronavirus

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 16:43pm | By: Dr. Fengwei Bai

Dr. Fengwei Bai, Associate Professor, USM School of Biological, Environmental and Earth SciencesIn the last few days, an outbreak of a respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus (2019 nCoV) first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, has caused more than 4,500 cases of infection, and more than 100 deaths in China as for Jan. 28. The typical symptoms of 2019 nCoV infection in humans include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

Although very rigorous controlling measures have been put in place by China’s government, including lockdown of Wuhan city and surrounding cities, the virus has spread to at least 15 countries, including the U.S. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are five imported cases in the states of California, Washington, Illinois and Arizona that all recently traveled from Wuhan. All five of the persons infected have been isolated, and there are no local transmissions in the U.S.

Coronavirus is a group of RNA viruses that usually cause common cold symptoms. The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is closely related to two other Coronaviruses - SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, transmitted to humans from bats) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, transmitted to humans from camels) that have caused pandemic and epidemic in 2003 and 2012, respectively. SARS, also first discovered in China in 2002, had caused 8,089 cases resulting in 774 deaths (9.6% fatality rate), reported in 17 countries between November 2002 and July 2003. More and more evidence indicates 2019-nCoV was originally transmitted to people from unidentified wild animals in a large seafood and animal market in Wuhan. However, an increasing number of patients and medical care providers have also been infected, even without exposure to the animal market, indicating through person-to-person contact.

Although there is much more to learn about the transmissibility, severity, and other features associated with 2019-nCoV among humans, the main transmission routes may be similar with SARS and MERS that is thought to have happened mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread. The incubation period of 2019-nCoV is between two and 14 days, which means that people infected with the viruses may spread it to others even without any symptoms, such as fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Some epidemiologists believe that 2019-nCoV is more contagious than SARS, despite a relative lower fatality rate (< 3% thus far). Due to its RNA genome it can have a high mutant rate and recombination between two viral genomes during the process of replication, so we may expect that this virus may further increase its fitness in humans, and there may be more cases appearing in next few weeks.

Although this is a serious public health threat, the majority of patients diagnosed with the virus should recover from 2019-nCoV infection; most of the patients who have died from the infection have been older than age 60 or have had pre-existing conditions. According to the CDC, “The risk to individuals is dependent on exposure. At this time, some people will have an increased risk of infection, for example, healthcare workers caring for 2019-nCoV patients and other close contacts. For the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV is considered low.”

There is currently no vaccine to prevent 2019-nCoV infection. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to the virus. However, the CDC recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, including:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in a trash container.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

The CDC also published guidelines for travelers from China:

All travelers from China, including business travelers, people who visited friends and family, and humanitarian workers should take the following steps. First, watch for any changes in your health for 14 days after leaving China. If you get a fever or develop a cough or difficulty breathing during this 14-day period, avoid contact with others. Call your doctor or healthcare provider to tell them about your symptoms and your recent travel. They will provide further instruction about steps to take before your medical visit to help to reduce the risk that you will spread your illness to other people in the office or waiting room if that is what has made you sick. Don’t travel while you are sick.

Learn more about Dr. Bai and his work at USM at https://www.usm.edu/faculty-directory/profile.php?id=1936828. More information from the CDC about the coronavirus may be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/index.html.

By Dr. Fengwei Bai, Associate Professor, USM School of Biological, Environmental and Earth Sciences