What do we know about the virus now?
The Covid-19 virus is a member of the coronavirus family which passed from animals to humans late last year. Many of those originally infected worked or often shop at the wholesale seafood market in Huanan, in the center of the Chinese city of Wuhan. Exceptionally for a virus that has jumped from one species to another, it appears to be effectively transmitted to humans – current estimates show that without strong containment measures, the average person who catches Covid-19 will transmit it to two others. The virus also appears to have a higher mortality rate than common diseases such as seasonal flu. The combination of the ability of the coronavirus to spread and cause serious disease has prompted many countries, including the United Kingdom, to introduce or plan comprehensive public health measures to contain and limit the impact of the epidemic.
How can I keep myself and others from getting infected?
Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and do it often, including when you get home or work. Use a hand sanitizer gel if you don’t have soap and water. Avoid touching your face. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or the crook of your elbow (not your hand) and put the used tissues directly into the bin. Avoid close contact with people who have possible symptoms. Follow the NHS guidelines on self-isolation and travel.
How can you tell the difference between the flu and Covid-19?
Coronavirus epidemic hit in the middle of the flu season in the northern hemisphere, and even doctors may have trouble distinguishing between the two – overlapping symptoms may have slowed detection of community infections in some countries, including Italy.
Typical flu symptoms, which usually develop quickly, include high fever, sore throat, muscle aches, headache, chills, runny or stuffy nose, tiredness and, more occasionally, vomiting and diarrhea. Doctors are still struggling to understand the full extent of the symptoms and the severity of Covid-19, but early studies of patients being transported to hospital have revealed that almost all have fever and a dry cough, and many suffered from fatigue and muscle pain. Pneumonia (lung infection) is common in patients with coronavirus, even apart from the most severe cases, which can cause breathing difficulties. A runny nose and a sore throat are much less common, reported by only 5% of patients. The only real confirmation of having Covid-19 is to take a test.
What should I do if I have symptoms?
If you have symptoms or think you may have been exposed to the virus while traveling or through other contacts, call the NHS 111 service or visit the online service, or contact the equivalent service in your country. Do not go to a general practitioner, pharmacy or hospital.
If I get a coronavirus, how sick will I be?
A large study in China found that about 80% of confirmed cases had fairly mild symptoms (defined as no significant infection of the lungs). About 15% had severe symptoms that caused severe shortness of breath, low blood oxygen or other lung problems, and less than 5% were critical, including respiratory failure, septic shock, or problems multiple organs. However, it is possible that more very mild cases may go under the radar, and therefore this distribution of severity could change over time as more screening takes place. The elderly and those with respiratory problems, heart disease or diabetes are at higher risk.
What is the death rate from the new coronavirus?
It is probably about or a little less than 1%. Much higher figures have been stolen, but chief physician Chris Whitty is one of those who think it will turn out to be 1% or less. The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, spoke of 3.4%, but his figure was calculated by dividing the number of deaths by the number of officially confirmed cases. We know that there are many other mild cases that are not hospitalized and are not counted, which would lead to a significant drop in the death rate.
Deaths are highest in the elderly, with very low rates in the young, although medical staff who treat patients and are exposed to many viruses are at higher risk. But even among those over 80, 90% will recover.
Can you be infected by public transport?
Most infections occur in families, where people live nearby. You must be within one or two meters of someone to get infected with cough virus-laden water droplets or when they are talking. It is less likely in public transport. However, it would be possible to pick up the virus on your hands from a surface that someone infected had touched. The virus can persist for 48 hours or even 72 hours on a hard surface, such as the handrail in the tube, but less time on a soft surface. This is why the advice is to wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face, to prevent the virus from entering your nose, mouth or eyes.
Is there a cure for Covid-19?
Not at the moment, but drugs known to work against certain viruses are being tested in China, where there are thousands of patients, and new trials are starting in the United States and other countries. It takes a lot of people to find out if they work with a few people or a lot of people or no one at all. The most promising are Kaletra, which is a combination of two anti-HIV drugs, and remdesivir, which was tried but failed in Ebola patients in West Africa in 2013 and 2016. Some Chinese doctors are also trying to chloroquine, an antimalarial drug, which is out of patent, therefore inexpensive and highly available, and would be very useful in low-income countries. The first results are expected in mid-March and should indicate whether the drugs will help at least the most seriously ill people. We do not expect a miracle cure.
When will we get a vaccine?
Efforts to develop an effective Covid-19 vaccine have been rapid compared to historic epidemics, such as Ebola. A number of teams are already testing candidate vaccines in animals and are preparing to conduct small trials in humans. The American company Moderna Therapeutics is already recruiting and hopes to recruit 45 volunteers between 18 and 55 years old and launch the trial by the end of April. Phase one trials like this aim to determine if the vaccine triggers an immune response and if the given dose causes side effects and could be completed fairly quickly. However, the next phases, which will involve thousands of volunteers and take a closer look at the effectiveness, will take longer and getting a commercially available vaccine within a year would be extremely quick. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said he did not believe that an effective vaccine to protect people against the coronavirus would be produced in time for the current epidemic, but that it would take one year or 18 months “was not unreasonable to assume”.