On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus, a pandemic. This is the highest level of categorizing public health emergencies.
Information about the coronavirus outbreak is still emerging (and evolving), but here’s a basic guide about what the virus is and how it might affect humans.
1. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses—not one individual virus
The virus causing the current outbreak is from the same family of viruses that caused infamous diseases like MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). Early statistics suggest that COVID-19 is more contagious than MERS, but less contagious than SARS.
2. Coronaviruses cause respiratory symptoms
Infections can be mild (like a cold) or very severe. Symptoms typically include coughing, fever, shortness of breath, and potential breathing problems. When severe, it can lead to complications like pneumonia.
3. Coronaviruses are “zoonotic”
That means they’re transmitted from animals to humans. These viruses may circulate in animals, and under the right conditions, they can jump to humans and cause outbreaks. For example, the current outbreak is believed to have originated in bats.
Once coronaviruses have jumped to humans, human-to-human transmission is sometimes possible, depending on the strain. This is obviously the case with SARS, MERS, and the current coronavirus outbreak. While the majority of infected persons during January 2020 were people who lived in or traveled to Wuhan, China, many countries are now experiencing "communitry spread," meaning human-to-human transmission without exposure to a confirmed case.
4. The most recent coronavirus outbreak is dubbed “COVID-19”
The outbreak went by a few unofficial names for a couple months, but in February 2020, the disease was officially named COVID-19, which is short for COronaVIrus Disease. This official name is designed to be descriptive, as well as easy to say and remember. The “19” refers to 2019, since the outbreak was identified in Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019.
5. Prevention methods against COVID-19 are the same as the seasonal flu
Once COVID-19 jumps from animals to humans, it can spread to other humans the same way influenza or the common cold can spread: via tiny droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. These can infect others if they get in another person’s mouth, nose, or eyes, or if they touch a contaminated surface and then touch their mouth, nose, or eyes.
As such, the prevention methods are the same:
Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. (If there’s no clean water available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.)
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, particularly when you have unwashed hands.
Avoid close contact with infected people.
It’s a good idea to follow these practices regardless of the risk of COVID-19, since they’ll also help you avoid the seasonal flu, common cold, and other infections. Learn more strategies for preventing respiratory illnesses here.
As the COVID-19 outbreak has unfolded, it's clear that the virus poses a real threat to the U.S. and the world, but time will tell the impact it will leave.