Only a few weeks into the new year, the world already has a new viral outbreak scare.
While officials in China confirmed the virus isn’t SARS, they do know it’s a coronavirus. A coronavirus can be mild, like the common cold, but this mysterious strain has already caused six deaths in China.
But, as the illness appears in the United States, many are probably asking what is a coronavirus? Could it cause an outbreak in the US? Should I be worried about catching this virus?
What is a Coronavirus?
As we mentioned earlier, the coronavirus can range greatly in severity. What’s common across all coronaviruses is that it infects the respiratory system.
Coronaviruses are zoonotic, able to spread from animals to humans. Usually the virus spreads from person-to-person through coughing or sneezing. The virus will then infect the sinuses, throat and nose, usually staying in the lower respiratory system.
In most cases, a coronavirus infection will be mild, even causing 15-30% of common colds. When a coronavirus infects the upper respiratory system, it can lead to illnesses like bronchitis and pneumonia.
Mild coronaviruses will cause symptoms like:
- Sore Throat
- Runny Nose
But, the virus can also cause severe and life-threatening illnesses. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) are both coronaviruses behind dangerous outbreaks this century.
Although very rare, both SARS and MERS cause similar symptoms which might seem like the flu:
- High Fever
- Shortness of Breath
- Dry Cough
While MERS can cause all the above symptoms, the virus can also lead to increased nausea and vomiting.
What makes both SARS and MERS deadly is the development of pneumonia and risk of respiratory failure. The viruses can also cause the heart and liver to fail.
While the fatality rate of both viruses remain uncertain, the WHO estimates about 35% of confirmed MERS cases have caused death. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, the WHO estimated the virus caused death in about 15% of cases.
Much like any other coronavirus, MERS and SARS spread through water droplets from an infected person. Usually the person providing medical help for an infected patient is at the greatest risk, with a cough or sneeze spreading the virus.
Treatment and Prevention
There is currently no vaccine or specific treatment for coronaviruses.
A doctor will often advise infected patients to get rest, drink fluids and take over-the-counter pain medication for the sore throat and fever.
Even without a vaccine, you can take steps to avoid the spread of coronaviruses:
- Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly
- Show extra caution when near a person who is infected, avoiding close contact
- Cover your mouth when sneezing and coughing
- Stay home if showing the symptoms of a coronavirus
Keep in mind that coronaviruses pose a greater risk during the winter months. It’s wise to show extra caution during the cold season.
The History of SARS
Because coronaviruses are zoonotic, humans may contract a strain from various animals.
Such a transmission occurred in 2002, starting in China. While the animal behind SARS is still under some debate, it’s believed a bat infected with a coronavirus spread the illness to a human in China. A Chinese farmer living near Hong Kong came down with what’s believed to be the first case of SARS. Doctors initially thought the illness was atypical pneumonia.
A doctor in China treated infected patients at a hospital in early 2003. The doctor then traveled to Hong Kong, unknowingly bringing SARS with him.
A lack of early quarantines allowed the virus to make it to nearby countries like Vietnam and Singapore. By April 2003, the WHO issued a global health alert for SARS, claiming global travel allowed the virus to reach other parts of the world, including North America.
The outbreak officially ended in July 2003, by which point over 8,000 people were infected with SARS, causing 774 deaths.
No cases of SARS have been reported since May 2004.
The History of MERS
The timeline of MERS transmission remains somewhat unclear.
While the first confirmed cases in humans came in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, the virus can be traced back to camels in 1983. Another zoonotic virus, officials have found MERS in camels across various countries.
Since the first cases in 2012, MERS has been found on various countries, including those in Europe, Africa and North America. Although, most MERS cases and outbreaks have been contained to the Middle East.
According to the WHO, MERS has caused 2,494 cases and 858 deaths since 2012.
Do you have any questions about coronaviruses? Wondering how to avoid a coronavirus and other illnesses when leaving the country? Passport Health can help. Give us a call at or book an appointment online to speak to a travel health nurse.