Coronavirus, nuove immagini al microscopio (LaPresse)

Ten questions (and answers) about coronavirus

In these unsettled days everybody is talking about coronavirus but few people are really informed about the facts. Fear of being infected and hysteria about unlikely food shortages in the supermarkets have transformed a scientific subject into an object of speculation. And as a result, as fake news and urban legends spread, panic has prevailed over rationality to the extent that it is changing our day-to-day lives. In this regard, it is necessary to clear the table of any misunderstanding and answer the most frequent questions about Covid-19.

What is coronavirus?

It is a virus that belongs to the huge family of coronaviruses. These pathogenic agents cause illnesses that range from the common cold to the much more complicated Middle Eastern Respiratory System (MERS) and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The name derives from their appearance which under the electronic microscope vaguely brings to mind the shape of a crown. Coronaviruses were identified in the mid-1960s and can infect human beings as well as some animals, including birds and mammals. To date, seven coronaviruses have proved themselves capable of infecting human beings. The last one, which until now had never been identified in the human race, is none other than the novel present day coronavirus also called 2019-n-Cov or Covid-19.

Is SARS or Covid-19 more dangerous?

They are two related viruses given that both belong to the coronavirus family. There are however differences that must be pointed out. The severe acute respiratory syndrome that spread in 2002 and 2003 resulted in two years in 8096 cases and 774 deaths, with a 9.6% death rate. Covid-19 is much more contagious (it is estimated that on average an infected person can infect another 2-3 people) and therefore  produces a greater number of cases. However, the fatality rate of the novel coronavirus is, at least as matters stand, much lower than SARS at around 2-3%. The symptoms are also much milder.

How is Covid-19 transmitted?

The virus is transmitted from one person to another. It spreads through close contact with a sick person. The primary route is the respiratory droplets of infected persons, in other words saliva, coughing, sneezing and direct personal contact. Also pay attention to your hands: if they are contaminated and not washed avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes.

What are its origins?

As regards this question, there are various hypotheses and just as many fake news stories. At the moment the experts take the view that the source of the virus may be a wild animal that has not yet been identified. Suspicion has fallen upon snakes and bats.

What are the symptoms?

A good and unequivocal answer cannot be given for every infected person. It depends on the case although the most common symptoms include coughing, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death. Usually the symptoms are mild and slow in the beginning. There are also people who become infected but do not develop symptoms or any kind of illness.

When was the first case?

The coronavirus appeared in China, to be precise in Wuhan, the capital of the province of Hubei. Beyond the Wall the first infections were recorded in mid-December 2019 even if at the time no-one knew that those mysterious cases of pneumonia could be connected to a Covid-19 epidemic. In Italy the first recorded case was in mid-February 2019.

What is the difference between coronavirus and the flu?

Many draw comparisons between these two viruses but important distinctions must be made. The symptoms of the two infections are very similar and consist of cough, fever and cold. Covid-19 is, however, much more contagious than normal flu. In addition, while seasonal flu is a known virus, which changes its characteristics slightly year after year, the coronavirus is completely new. This means that no person is immune and that, above all, there are no vaccines or drugs to fight it. In a suspected case of coronavirus specific laboratory tests must be conducted to confirm the diagnosis.

How is Covid-19 treated?

Since there are no specific drugs or vaccines, those who contract the illness are placed in isolation in hospitals or at home to prevent them from transmitting the virus to other people. The more general symptoms are treated with common pain and fever medications or with antibiotics. Do people recover from coronavirus? Absolutely. Most people, around 80%, recover from the illness without any need for special care. From the data available so far only one out of six people with Covid-19 becomes seriously ill and develop breathing difficulties.

Which people are most at risk?

The people most susceptible to severe forms of coronavirus are the elderly and those who have pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. 

What health emergency can it cause?

The problem of coronavirus lies not so much in its fatality and mortality rate – which must however be taken into consideration – but in the speed with which it is transmitted from one person to another. Normally, Covid-19 does not raise particular concerns, since only 20% of infected people need hospitalisation and intensive care is required in 5% of cases. The problem is that it is highly contagious. The more people fall ill at the same time, the higher the number of people requiring specific care increases. There is therefore a risk of the health system collapsing due to a shortage of beds, doctors and facilities.