Understanding the Risks and Prevention of Coronavirus

January 27, 2020    |  

As public health officials around the world are monitoring a new coronavirus strain (2019-nCoV) first identified in the Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, there are some basic facts to know about coronaviruses.

Coronaviruses are part of a family of viruses that can affect humans and are commonly found in many different species of animals. Symptoms are usually those of the common cold and can include a dry cough, fever, or chills. More severe cases can occur in individuals with weakened immune systems and the elderly.

Wilbur Chen, MD; Matthew Frieman, PhD; and Kathleen Neuzil, MD, MPH

Wilbur Chen, MD; Matthew Frieman, PhD; and Kathleen Neuzil, MD, MPH

Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) and the UMSOM Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health (CVD) note that coronaviruses are a leading cause of respiratory illness in patients, accounting for at least 15 percent of all viral respiratory illnesses.

“We typically do not test for what viruses cause common cold-like symptoms, so we don’t have a good estimate of the number of infections they cause each year, said Wilbur Chen, MD, associate professor of medicine and an adult infectious disease specialist at CVD.

Coronaviruses may affect people or animals. Other coronaviruses leading to outbreaks in the past include the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS) identified in 2012 and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) outbreak identified in 2003. To date, MERS has infected almost 2,500 people resulting in 858 associated deaths (a case fatality rate of ~35 percent) and SARS resulted in 8,098 known cases resulting in 774 deaths (a case fatality rate of ~10 percent), according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Matthew Frieman, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UMSOM, is investigating whether therapeutics he has developed for SARS and MERS will be effective against the new 2019-nCoV virus as well as developing new treatments for this emerging coronavirus.

While so far there has been limited spread of this latest strain of coronavirus outside of China, experts recommend taking precautions to avoid spread of the illness, especially amid increased global travel and connectedness. According to WHO and other global health officials, it only took weeks before the 2019-nCoV made its way outside of the region, with two cases reported in the United States — one on Jan. 21 in Washington state and a second identified in Chicago on Jan. 24.

“There are many things that we need to know about this new strain of coronavirus, but what we do know is that most respiratory illnesses like this can be prevented by limiting exposure to those who are sick and regularly washing hands. This is important practice, particularly as we face the influenza season,” said Kathleen Neuzil, MD, MPH, the Myron M. Levine Professor in Vaccinology, professor of medicine and pediatrics, and director of CVD.

There currently is no vaccine to prevent coronavirus, but experts say the best way to prevent the spread of illnesses from respiratory viruses, like 2019-nCoV, are the same important precautions that should be taken with influenza. The 2019-2020 influenza season is underway, and the winter months bring on higher incidence of other respiratory illnesses. Currently there is widespread influenza in the state of Maryland. Neuzil highlighted the importance of getting the influenza vaccine as a key protection against influenza-related respiratory illness.

As recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these steps include:

  • Regular hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using alcohol-based hand sanitizers
  • Avoiding contact with eyes, nose and mouth
  • Avoiding close contact with individuals who are sick
  • Avoiding animals (alive or dead), animal markets, and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat)
  • Remaining at home when individuals have symptoms such as a persistent cough, fever, diarrhea, and chills
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces

Public health officials have already taken steps to prevent the spread of this latest strain, drawing on experience from prior outbreaks like SARS and MERS. For example, public health authorities such as WHO and CDC have initiated preparedness and response activities. Officials in Wuhan have closed local transportation resources out of the area to help reduce the spread of the virus.

In addition, the United States and several other countries have started screening passengers from Wuhan, China, at airports and other ports of entry. Health practitioners in other Chinese cities, as well as other countries including the United States, have quickly identified travel-related cases and have isolated individuals for further care.

Important Resources

The following resources are available with information on 2019-nCoV: