Coronavirus (Getty)

What is the coronavirus?

At the root of the pneumonia epidemic that has brought China to its knees and put the whole world on its guard is the virus that in 2019 was renamed novel coronavirus, abbreviated to 2019-n-Cov.

The illness was identified for the first time in the city of Wuhan at the end of December 2019. In a few short weeks dozens and dozens of people were infected across the entire country whilst others have died. The mysterious disease has also spread abroad and triggered collective psychosis.

The source of the new coronavirus is Wuhan, a megacity of 11 million inhabitants in the province of Hubei in central China. The exact origin has been identified as the fish market of Huanan – now closed – which sold, amongst other things, the meat of wild animals.

The first cases appeared at the end of last year. Many of the initial patients who displayed the symptoms of the infection had worked at or visited as customers the city’s wholesale market in which they were able to buy fish, seafood, farm animals, poultry and snakes.

A speciality of Wuhan cuisine has been put under the magnifying glass in relation to the spread of the new coronavirus: fruit bat soup. According to some experts it could be the unknown hypothetical intermediary of the pathology between man and the virus.

In other words, scientists take the view that the natural hosts of the coronavirus can be bats but there may exist a vehicle between them and humans. There are two options: the soup or snakes.

The pathogenic agent is a coronavirus of the family to which SARS (Secure Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) belong.

The name derives from the unusual crown-like shapes on the surface of the virus. Coronaviruses are common in very many species of animals even if, in some rare cases, they can mutate and infect man and go on to spread in the population.

When we speak of a “new coronavirus” we mean that we are faced with a new strain of coronavirus that has never been identified by man.

To date we know six types of human coronaviruses to which we must now add the recent arrival from Wuhan. Here is the complete list: 229E (alpha coronavirus), NL63 (alpha coronavirus), OC43 (beta coronavirus), HKU1 (beta coronavirus) and then the most famous, MERS-CoV (the coronavirus beta that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome), SARS-CoV (the beta coronavirus which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome) and, lastly, 2019 new coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

We still do not know much about the Chinese virus. The experts have, however, managed to draw up a sort of composite picture based on the common aspects of the other coronaviruses that can cause slight to moderate illness, a common cold or fully-fledged respiratory syndromes.

Going into further detail, the most common symptoms of an infection from coronavirus in man include fever, breathing difficulties, runny nose, headache and cough but also – in the worst cases – shortness of breath, muscular pain, pneumonia, chills, acute respiratory syndrome, renal failure and death.

Human coronaviruses are transmitted from one infected person to another through coughing, saliva, sneezing or through direct contact. An example? Shaking hands with an infected patient can lead to the virus entering the mucous membranes. It is also risky to touch an object or a surface contaminated by the virus and then putting unwashed hands on one’s nose, eyes or mouth.

At the moment there are no vaccines that prevent the new coronavirus. There is, however, a test to identify it. Anybody who contracts the illness is kept in isolation in hospital or at home in order to avoid contamination. The generic symptoms are treated with pain medication and medicine to reduce fever or anti-biotics. Doctors advise patients to drink a lot of liquid and relax.

Several pieces of advice can be followed in order to prevent risks and reduce significantly the possibility of contracting such a virus.

Above all, it is essential to wash your hands often with soap and water and alcoholic solutions for at least twenty seconds.

It is better to sneeze or cough into a tissue, wear a mask and always throw the tissues into a closed waste paper basket; do not touch your nose, ears and mouth with dirty hands; reduce to a minimum close contact with infected people.

Pay attention to the food: avoid raw or undercooked meat as well as unwashed fruit and vegetables and unbottled drinks.

It appears almost impossible to provide real time updates about victims and infections. We will confine ourselves to saying that the virus has now spread beyond the wall.

Cases have been recorded in various countries and territories, including: Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and the United States. There are also suspected cases in Brazil and Australia.

False alarms for the moment in Scotland, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Russia. The situation is, however, in a state of continuous evolution.

A glance at the personal data of the victims reveals that most of them are elderly people. None of the first few people infected is less than 48 years of age and many had pre-existing illnesses before being struck down by the coronavirus, including diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.


Translation by Dale Owens