Editor’s note: The first case of a novel strain of coronavirus has been confirmed in the United States. The respiratory illness, which can cause pneumonia and other symptoms, was first reported in Wuhan, China, where hundreds have been sickened and at least 18 have died. Leyi Wang, a virologist and professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Illinois, discussed the outbreak of the new strain with News Bureau biomedical sciences editor Liz Ahlberg Touchstone.
What is a coronavirus?
Coronavirus is a class of viruses found in a wide variety of mammal and bird species, and poses a threat to livestock, companion animals and humans. Most are only transmitted among animal species, but there are seven that cause human infection: four common coronaviruses and three more serious coronaviruses – MERS, SARS and the 2019 novel coronavirus identified from Wuhan.
How is it spread?
This 2019 novel coronavirus is believed to originally spread from animals at an animal market to humans, and can be spread among people through close contact with an infected person. For example, some medical workers in China have fallen ill after treating patients with the virus.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms include a runny nose, headache, cough, fever, sore throat, shortness of breath, chills and body aches. In severe cases, the virus can cause pneumonia, kidney failure and death.
How is the outbreak being addressed?
As of Thursday, there have been more than 600 confirmed cases in China, four in Thailand, and one each in Japan, South Korea and the U.S. Four cities in China, including Wuhan, have been quarantined. Passenger screening has begun at airports with large numbers of flights from the Wuhan area.
It’s advised that people avoid travel to Wuhan and follow basic hand and respiratory hygiene, such as washing hands with soap and water and sneezing into elbows.
What should people do if they recently have been to the Wuhan area or think they may have come into contact with someone with the virus?
Monitor any respiratory symptoms and seek prompt medical care if respiratory symptoms develop. Although there is not a specific treatment for coronavirus, specific symptoms of illness can be treated.
How is the new strain similar to, and different from, SARS?
The illness in Wuhan caused by 2019 novel coronavirus is different from SARS identified in the past. I analyzed the spike proteins – the proteins that surround the outside of the virus – for the 2019 novel coronavirus and compared it with SARS coronavirus and bat coronavirus. Genetically, the spike protein of 2019 novel coronavirus shares more of its amino acid profile with bat coronavirus (80%) than SARS coronavirus (75%).