By now, everyone who doesn’t live in a cave has heard about the new coronavirus epidemic, with increasing numbers of infections and also increasing numbers of deaths. While there is a need to be concerned, at this point in time, most people infected recover from the infections and some folk are even free of any symptoms. So what are coronaviruses, how dangerous are they, who is at risk and how do we protect ourselves? Unfortunately, what we don’t know is far greater than what we do. Let’s first talk about coronaviruses. This family of viruses is quite common and most of us have had a coronavirus infection.
In humans and animals, it can infect the upper respiratory tract but usually does not produce serious disease. Along with rhinoviruses, the coronaviruses can cause the common cold. So typically, a person has a runny nose, sneezing or a cough, sometimes a fever that all clears up after a few days. There is no vaccine yet and no approved drugs in the U.S. Infections are usually less severe than a case of the flu caused by influenza virus.
But, viruses like coronavirus and influenza can mutate or change which can make it more dangerous. Also, coronaviruses that infect animals may be able to cross over and infect humans. One of the problems of this new dangerous strain of coronavirus (called SARS-CoV-2 which produces disease COVID-19) is that the infection produces the same symptoms of other common infections like the cold or the flu.
The main symptoms would be a fever, along with a cough or shortness of breath. If you have these symptoms, contact your doctor or go to an emergency room so you can be tested. The coronavirus can be detected in nasal secretions, sputum and other secretions from the upper respiratory tract. Most likely though, it is not a SARS-CoV-2 infection.
So how deadly is this virus? Sorry to say, we don’t really know. The data we have from mid-February indicates a mortality rate of about 2.3%, and that is expected to go down as cases increase. Of the cases in the US, no one has died yet. But we’ve been down this path before with other coronaviruses. In 2001, we experienced an epidemic by a coronavirus that caused a syndrome called SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS had a much higher mortality rate of almost 10%! SARS like SARS-CoV-2, also originated in China and then quickly spread. Then, years later in 2012, another coronavirus pops up in Saudi Arabia and causes a disease called MERS, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. The mortality rate from this infection was a whopping 35%! So far…