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What you should know about COVID-19

The information in this article will be updated regularly, based on the most current knowledge. Last updated on February 14th, 2020.

Since the start of 2020, a new respiratory infection outbreak continues to spread from Asia to the rest of the world. It is caused by a new coronavirus which is called SARS-CoV-2 and sparks memories of previous outbreaks, like SARS in 2003 (also with Asian origins) or the MERS outbreak (which was mainly in the Middle East). Both of these outbreaks were also caused by a coronavirus.

While most cases are occuring in China right now, several infections are also being detected in other continents. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”, and the news reports are full of stories on this newly detected coronavirus. But, do we need to be alarmed? Is there a reason to worry? What do we need to know about this outbreak and the new virus?

We want to help by answering some of your most frequently asked questions.

Symptoms of novel coronavirus include cough, sore throat, and shortness of breath.

Novel Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 – why are there so many different names?

Initially when the new virus was identified as a novel coronavirus, it was named preliminary New or Novel Coronavirus 2019 (nCoV-2019). But, it was clear that this would not be the long term name as it would only be “novel” for a certain time – so, a proper name was needed. This is complicated because the new name should not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, but it should still be pronounceable and related to the disease. This is why WHO decided on the official name COVID-19 (Corona-Virus-Disease 2019). At the same time, the virologists have decided on a name for the virus itself. As it is genetically very similar to the original SARS coronavirus, they called it SARS-CoV-2. To summarize, the virus with the name SARS-CoV-2 causes the disease – which is called COVID-19.

Coronavirus or common cold – how can I tell the difference?

Symptoms of the common cold and COVID-19 are very similar. This is why right now the so-called exposure (meaning the possibility of an infection) is so important to differentiate between the two. Along with showing the typical symptoms of fever, cough, and sore throat, it is also necessary to have been in an area where the virus is already spreading widely – as of the beginning of February 2020, it’s only been China – or to have been in contact with a person diagnosed with the new coronavirus.

Even though it is not easy to differentiate between a cold and COVID-19, it also means that for most people, the coronavirus infection does not seem to be worse than a common cold.

How is the coronavirus transmitted?

From what we know so far, the transmission of the new coronavirus is similar to other respiratory viruses. It is transmitted mainly through little droplets that are created when someone sneezes or coughs. Normally these droplets only reach people in close proximity to the infected person. The general rule is that droplets can spread one to two meters but not much further than that. There are some studies underway that are attempting to see if other body fluids might also contain the virus. However, this is not known yet.

Does coronavirus cause death?

Unfortunately, it is possible to die from COVID-19 complications. It seems that a small percentage (at the moment, around 2 percent) of people who are infected develop such a severe disease that they die – which means the vast majority of infected people recover.

What is the incubation period for COVID-19?

The incubation period is the time between the infection and the first onset of symptoms. In the case of the new coronavirus, the average seems to be around three to seven days but can also range from two to 14 days.

Can only sick people spread the virus?

As the virus is transmitted by respiratory droplets, it is much more likely to spread the virus only if you have symptoms like sneezing and coughing. However, some people have become infected after contact with confirmed cases who had no or very mild symptoms at the time. That suggests that the virus might already spread from ‘not-yet’ symptomatic infected persons. If this turns out to be true, then it will make it more difficult to contain the outbreak.

An illustrative representation of the novel coronavirus.

How is coronavirus diagnosed?

A new test was developed quickly after the virus was identified. This laboratory testing is done on respiratory and blood samples by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in specialized laboratories.

How can I prevent a coronavirus infection?

At present, there is no vaccine to prevent the coronavirus infection. Avoiding exposure to the virus is the best way to prevent infection. Standard measures to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses apply, which are:

  • Wash hands frequently 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 anyone who has fever and cough.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, and then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

Is influenza a coronavirus?

No, influenza viruses are separate viruses – different from the coronavirus – even though they cause similar symptoms and also spread mainly through respiratory droplets.

Can humans get coronavirus from dogs or cats?

The origin of the virus is still unclear, but the research points towards bats or snakes as the original source. Until now, there are no reports of the new coronavirus in household pets.

Could I have the coronavirus infection?

For anyone with the typical symptoms (cough, sore throat, or shortness of breath), it is still extremely unlikely that the new coronavirus is the cause – especially as influenza season is underway in the northern hemisphere. It’s only if you have the typical symptoms and have had contact with the virus that there is a slight probability you caught a coronavirus infection.

In detail, this means a person should be tested if they show at least one of the following symptoms – cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, have had close contact with a coronavirus patient, have been to areas with ongoing community transmission of coronavirus (like China), or have worked in or attended a healthcare facility where patients with COVID-19 were being treated in the last 14 days before symptom onset.

What to do if I fit these criteria?

As the measures differ between countries, it is important to contact the respective public health authority to get advice on what to do. Before going to a doctor’s office or the emergency room, call ahead and tell them about your recent travels, contacts, your symptoms, and then follow their advice. In the meantime, avoid contact with others and do not travel. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing, and wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

Can the virus be spread via surfaces or imported food items?

Transmission of the virus via surfaces has not yet been confirmed. This also includes packages or luggage from the affected region. To reduce further spreading, regular hand washing is suggested. It is not yet clear if food items were involved in the original outbreak. However, when handling food, general hygiene measures should apply. This also helps to prevent several different types of gastrointestinal infections.

Should I wear a mask?

You do not need a mask if you are part of the general public without respiratory symptoms. It is not necessary or useful.

However, you should wear a mask if you have respiratory symptoms – like coughing or difficulty breathing – to limit the spread of respiratory droplets. You can also wear a mask if you are providing care to individuals with respiratory symptoms in order to protect yourself.

Is there a vaccine for coronavirus?

There is no vaccine available against the new coronavirus. Vaccine production is a complicated and time consuming process that normally takes years. In certain circumstances (like new influenza viruses), there are established methods that can accelerate this process. That being said, the new coronavirus was only detected in the beginning of January 2020 and even in the most optimistic scenarios, it will take some additional months before a vaccine is available and can be tested and used widely.

When will the outbreak be over?

This is a difficult question to answer. At the moment, there is very little indication that it will stop soon. As with the mild influenza pandemic in 2009/2010, it is possible that the coronavirus will spread worldwide. But, it is also possible that by spring, it could slow down – much like seasonal influenza each year.

Why are governments taking such strong measures to fight against the spread?

China and other affected countries are implementing very strict control measures to prevent the spreading of the new virus, in the hopes that less people get infected and fall ill. Even though the symptoms seem to be no worse than a common cold (in most cases), people are still worried and are seeking healthcare whenever they experience mild symptoms. This often overwhelms the healthcare services and results in many people not being treated for other severe diseases. To reduce the stress on the healthcare system, it is common to implement stronger measures in the beginning of a pandemic. However, this does not mean that the disease is so severe for everyone. These measures are implemented from a public health protection perspective and not from an individual health perspective. It is also in hopes that vaccinations and other effective prevention measures might be available by the time the virus spreads widely.

What does it mean that the World Health Organization declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”?

This official declaration is in response to the outbreak and is associated with some additional recommendations made to the affected and neighboring countries. Many countries are already implementing these measures, which means the Public Health Emergency announcement has not had a large effect on those countries. However, it does support the development of treatment and vaccination through financial and political attention.

Why are the official numbers of SARS-CoV-2 infections changing so much in China?

In the beginning of an outbreak, authorities try to identify everyone who is infected in order to control or slow down possible spreading. Because the measures might be quite rigid, like isolation, the infection needs to be confirmed in order to justify the measures. At a later stage when it becomes clear that the disease is occurring widely, testing everyone is no longer needed. This means only counting symptomatic people with the correct exposure, which results in counting differently than before. This is what is happening in China at the moment. They initially started counting laboratory confirmed cases and are now counting cases diagnosed by a physician according to defined criteria.


Dr. Andreas Gilsdorf

Andreas is Ada's Director of Epidemiology and Public Health.