The most recent outbreak of coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, has quickly garnered widespread attention and continual coverage, with news of its emergence seemingly spreading as rapidly as the virus itself.
But where did 2019-nCoV originate? How much do we already know about it? How does it compare to other common viruses, and should it be a cause for concern?
While there is currently no cure for the illness, there has been a plethora of rumors and false information.
A quick google search of today’s breaking news headlines will yield hundreds of results flashing the words “novel coronavirus,” suggesting that this is an entirely unfamiliar pathogen, the likes of which medical experts have never seen before. To call the virus “novel,” however, is somewhat of a misnomer.
While it is true that the current outbreak is being caused by a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified and which the global medical community still has much to learn about, the subject of coronaviruses is hardly an uncharted area of study.
Dr. Kristina Cade is the medical director for Yolo Hospice, and prior to receiving her degree in biomedical research, conducted her thesis on coronaviruses.
“I actually thought years ago that my research would just not mean anything… Back then, no one was talking about coronavirus… but now when you say [it], everyone’s head turns,” Cade said.
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses causing respiratory illness, and they have existed in both animals and humans long before the 2019 outbreak. The 2019-nCoV is thought to have originated in bats, as the RNA of the virus is very similar to that of a bat coronavirus. The name “coronavirus” is derived from the pathogen’s crown-like appearance when observed in electron micrographs.
Wuhan, China is the epicenter of 2019-nCoV, and examinations of this new strain have suggested a likely emergence of the virus from an animal reservoir. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the early stages of the outbreak, many of the patients of respiratory illness caused by 2019-nCoV in Wuhan had some link to a large seafood and live animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread. Later, a growing number of patients reportedly did not have exposure to animal markets, indicating person-to-person spread.
Transmission between animals and humans is not uncommon in coronaviruses.
“We’ve been living with coronaviruses for thousands of years,” Cade said. “The fact that they’re jumping from animal to animal to human to human is nothing new.”
Previous outbreaks of coronaviruses in humans include the 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS-CoV, and the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS-CoV. Like 2019-nCoV, both SARS and MERS are betacoronaviruses with zoonotic origins in bats. SARS-CoV was transmitted to humans through civet cats, and MERS-CoV was transmitted through camels.
Both of these previous cases proved to be more virulent than 2019-nCoV seems to be, with more severe symptoms and a higher death rate. By comparison, the most recent strain raises a much smaller cause for concern in terms of mortality risk. As of Feb. 11, there have been 43,146 total confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV worldwide, with 1,018 total deaths, which works out to be a mortality rate of just over 2 percent.
“If you want to compare this coronavirus to the past coronavirus outbreak, the SARS had a higher mortality rate at 9 to 15 percent, and then the MERS had a higher mortality rate at 34 percent, but I find it very interesting that both of those coronavirus outbreaks did not receive the same media attention as this one,” Cade said.
Cade also emphasizes that the majority of the reported 2019-nCoV infections are not severe, and that the fatal cases linked to the virus were also in part due to premorbid conditions in patients, meaning that their immune systems were somehow compromised prior to contracting the respiratory illness.
However, while general cases of 2019-nCoV are not severe, one significant facet of this new strain is its rate of infectivity.
“2019-nCoV does seem to transmit more readily between humans, it seems to have a transmission rate similar to the flu, [but] even though it’s spreading faster, the symptoms are not something to be worried about and the mortality risk is low,” Cade said.
In fact, it was solely on the basis of this strain’s rate of infectivity that both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the CDC felt it prudent to declare a global health emergency, and the decision was largely unrelated to the virulence of 2019-nCoV. An official health notice released by Yolo County on Jan. 31 acknowledged the emergence of 2019-nCoV, but reported that influenza remains the highest respiratory illness risk in Yolo County.
Medical experts are still studying the specific characteristics of this strain of coronavirus, and one of the factors they are beginning to speculate about is how long the outbreak will last. Though this is still unpredictable to an extent, Cade guesses that the upsurge of infections has not yet reached its peak.
“A typical virus infects for seven to 10 days, so if you have tens of thousands of people sick for seven to 10 days, it’s gonna take several months, I think, before we see the downward curve of this,” she said. “But that’s also part of [what] we don’t know, and we’re just gonna have to follow it and see.”
In late January, the New Star Chinese School board members voted to cancel lessons in response to many families having traveled to China throughout the winter season. As the number of coronavirus cases and deaths climb, the panic in response to the outbreak has reached the Davis community and affected many activities among Chinese residents.
Online classes have started to replace the weekly lessons for NSCS, according to sophomore May Wang, who is a teaching assistant.
Not only have classes been postponed, the annual Spring Festival holiday performance the school puts on was pushed back. This year, the performance was scheduled for Feb. 2. Junior Alex Di, the stage manager for the show, says the performance may be in March.
In addition, a drawing class and digital art lessons led by two separate Chinese teachers have been cancelled until further notice, according to sophomore Youyou Xu. A rapid proliferation of new virus cases would indicate classes may not continue for a longer period.
Lorinda Chang and Barry Chang advise everyone to practice normal self-care such as washing hands and seeing the doctor if not feeling well. As a nurse practitioner for the UC Davis department of veteran affairs and a pharmacist for the UCD health system, respectively, they believe a greater concern would be influenza, which has taken more lives than the novel coronavirus in the U.S.
The couple is concerned that if an emergency were to occur in China, the cancellation of flights would prohibit family members in Davis from going home. The Changs personally know several families in Davis that have booked flights to China in mid-February, but were refunded for their tickets due to the current restriction on outbound flights.
These families and others have received requests to ship hand sanitizers and face masks back to China as supplies are running low there. This has led to a shortage of stock of these items in stores in the Davis area.
International students attending UCD have also been worried about their families back home. Study abroad programs in China planned for June have been suspended for the spring quarter, according to the UCD website.
“The fear. There is a fear because of the unknown. For us, [the Coronavirus] is not [scary] because there is virus everywhere,” Lorinda said.
The Changs also have connections with Chinese people in Davis who have just returned from a trip to China and are supposed to be in quarantine until two weeks have passed to ensure they are free of the virus.
Although these people didn’t travel near the city of Wuhan, the origin of the epidemic, Chinese people in general are afraid to say they were recently in China and don’t want to associate themselves with Wuhan because of the negative sentiments that arise. “They should not put a stereotype on this,” Lorinda said, who feels that it’s unfair Chinese people as a whole are being discriminated against.
Wang also isn’t worried about the virus personally, although she believes that awareness and attempts to stay healthy are key. “I feel like because of this outbreak it shouldn’t allow people to be racist and hurtful to Chinese people. People should be more considerate and cautious of what they say,” she said.
As most of the people in the Chinese community in Davis aren’t currently worried about contracting the virus themselves, they can only educate others on the situation and wait for the next announcement.
“Talking about it will raise awareness, that’s the first thing, but at the same time that will bring up more racist comments about China, and so we’ll have to see which one weighs more, the racist comments or the awareness,” Di said.
As fear of the Coronavirus spreads rapidly, parents are concerned for their children and students are afraid of contracting the disease from their peers. Maria Clayton, public information officer for the district, is working to ease the panic among our community.
According to the UC Davis Health Center, students who were quarantined have tested negative for COVID-19 and have been released as of Feb. 29.
“We have no confirmed cases of COVID-19 but the flu is of very serious concern. Influenza is still the highest concern for people who are young children and people who are elderly, that’s what’s causing over 100 deaths this season already,” Clayton said.
Yolo County recommends that residents take precautions to further diminish the spreading of diseases such as washing hands, covering mouths when coughing and staying home if sick.
“School is a place where kids interact closely and illnesses spread, so we want kids who might have contracted an illness to stay home until they are free of symptoms,” Clayton said.
The Center for Disease Control is asking for preparations to be put in place in case of a broader community spread.
“Procedures we have are dependent on the circumstances, [such as] the duration of what kind of absences we are seeing and the volume of students,” Clayton said.
Short and long term independent study is available as well as DSIS in the event that schools are closed or for students taking a leave of absence from school.
“There are certainly parents now who have a high degree of concern over the current situation and maybe thinking about taking their kid out of school,” Clayton said. “Everyone has the ability to make choices for their own student but absences affect our school district.”
“We want to make sure that people have the best information and current information of what’s going on,” Clayton continued. “So there’s not a high degree of fear that the illness is in our school system right now.”
Working with the Yolo County health department, the school district puts procedures into place to spread awareness on how to lower the chances of contracting diseases.
“We need people to follow those same procedures as the flu, wash your hands as often as possible so you’re not spreading germs. Stay home if you are sick, those are the things that are going to help us combat the flu and the coronavirus,” Clayton said.
Junior Emme Eisenman is not anxious about the global pandemic.
“I’m not really that afraid of contracting the virus because I know I’m doing a good job washing my hands thoroughly and staying clean. I also know that the virus is only fatal to the infant/senior age group,” Eisenman said.
Schools officials agree that currently the issue is not serious enough for students education to be interrupted.
“School is safe, we want students to participate, we want kids to be in classes, and that is the best place right now and we are monitoring it every day,” Clayton said.