Public health experts around the globe are scrambling to understand, track, and contain a new virus that appeared in Wuhan, China, at the beginning of December 2019. The World Health Organization named the disease caused by the virus COVID-19, which references the type of virus and the year it emerged. The WHO declared that the virus is a pandemic
Where did the virus come from?
At the end of December, public health officials from China informed the World Health Organization that they had a problem: an unknown, new virus was causing pneumonia-like illness in the city of Wuhan. They quickly determined that it was a coronavirus and that it was rapidly spreading through and outside of Wuhan.
Coronaviruses are common in animals of all kinds, and they sometimes can evolve into forms that can infect humans. Since the start of the century, two other coronaviruses have jumped to humans, causing the SARS outbreak in 2002 and the MERS outbreak in 2012.
Scientists think this new virus first became capable of jumping to humans at the beginning of December. It originally seemed like the virus first infected people at a seafood market in Wuhan and spread from there. But one analysis of early cases of the illness, published January 24th, found that the first patient to get sick did not have any contact with the market. Experts are still trying to trace the outbreak back to its source.
Where is it spreading?
The virus is now spreading in dozens of countries around the world.
Although it originated in China, the country took aggressive action at the start of the outbreak, shutting down transportation in some cities and suspending public gatherings. Officials isolated sick people and aggressively tracked their contacts, and had a dedicated network of hospitals to test for the virus. The number of new infections reported in China has been declining, which indicated to WHO officials that transmission was slowing down — and that their containment measures were working.
Now, the WHO says, the epicenter of the pandemic is in Europe, which now has more new cases reported each day than China did at the height of its outbreak.
Can we treat this virus?
There aren’t any proven treatments for COVID-19, but there are dozens of studies underway to find some. One leading candidate is remdesivir, an antiviral medication originally developed to treat Ebola. There are clinical trials testing it in patients in China, in the US, and around the world.
Research teams and pharmaceutical companies are also working to develop a vaccine that can protect people from infection. However, vaccine development takes a long time. Even if everything goes smoothly, it will be around a year to 18 months before one is available, said Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
What can I do to protect myself and others?
Based on what we know so far, you can protect yourself with the same measures you’d take (and should be taking) to protect yourself against the flu: wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough, and stay away from people who are ill. Stay home from work or school if you’re feeling sick, and if you can, stay home even if you’re not feeling sick. If you’re older or have a chronic health condition — which makes you more likely to have a severe case of the disease — you might want to stay away from crowded places and postpone any unnecessary travel.
If you’re a young, healthy person, you might not feel very sick if you catch COVID-19. But if you don’t stay home and away from others, you could pass it on to someone who might get really sick. That’s why it’s so important to stay home.
One of the best ways to slow the spread of an outbreak is by staying away from other people, which is also called “social distancing.” That gives a virus less opportunity to jump from person to person. It’s why there aren’t going to be big events, professional sports, and in some places, school for a while. Those measures help blunt the impact of an outbreak by slowing the virus. If fewer people get sick at once, it’s easier for healthcare providers to give everyone good care.