The Wuhan Coronavirus: what you need to know

Today the Washington State Department of Health confirmed a case of the Wuhan coronavirus in a patient in Everett, the first confirmed case in the United States. It’s still early days, but here’s what’s known so far about the Wuhan coronavirus.

As the CDC explains, coronoviruses are a large, diverse family of viruses. Individual ones infect a variety of animals and humans. Most stay contained to a single species, but a few have been known to evolve the ability to jump between species, including from an animal to humans.  Viruses, unlike bacteria, aren’t alive; they are just strings of DNA or RNA. A virus infiltrates a cell and inserts itself into that cell’s own genetic code, reprogramming it and using the cell’s machinery to generate thousands of copies of the virus to spread elsewhere. Since a virus must be compatible with the cell’s own DNA and machinery, its ability to jump between species is contstrained by its dependence upon DNA, RNA or cell traits specific to one species. For example, a virus could spread between different kinds of birds, but not be able to make the jump to humans.

Coronaviruses you know about already include the “common cold,” but also MERS and SARS (which jumped from animals then spread between people).

Natural selection tends to favor viruses that generate symptoms that help to spread them, such as runny nose, sneezing and coughing. The ones that don’t tend to disappear quickly. Depending upon the severity of the response provoked, the virus may threaten the lives of those infected, especially those whose health is already compromised due to age, infirmity, or other medical conditions.

This particular coronavirus has been traced back to an animal and seafood market in Wuhan, China, where it appears to have infected (and sickened) hundreds of people and a small number of people have died. A few cases have shown up in other Chinese cities, and in Japan, Korea and Thailand. Initially all of the patients were traced back to Wuhan, with no evidence that the virus could spread between people (healthcare workers treating the patients were not becoming infected), but in the past few days there have been reported cases where it appears that the virus was passed between people. It isn’t yet understood how easily it is transmitted between people and what the most likely vectors are.

Symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus include a high fever, lower-respiratory congestion, and difficulty breathing, which means it’s hard to differentiate it from many other cold and flu viruses that are common this time of year — though on the more serious end it presents more like pneumonia.

Both the WHO and the CDC are actively working on understanding the Wuhan coronavirus. The genetic signature of the virus has been isolated and the CDC has developed a test to confirm cases; they are performing the test themselves now, but are coordinating an effort to get test kits out to health centers around the country. The WHO is studying the situation and determining whether it justifies declaring an international pandemic alert.

Neither the CDC nor the WHO are recommending travel restrictions at this point, though last week the CDC began monitoring at a handful of U.S. airports and today it expanded to two more. Wuhan is a domestic and international air travel hub in China. Hospitals, health centers and state and local health departments have been given direction from the CDC as to what to look for, and to make sure to ask patients who present with cold, flu or pneumonia-like symptoms whether they have recently traveled to China (and if they have, isolate them).

So what should we do?  First of all, don’t panic. At this point there is not strong evidence that the Wuhan coronavirus is “deadly” any more than the flu, which can also kill (and the CDC reports 36 confirmed U.S. deaths from influenza already this season). And while it seems to be communicable, it doesn’t seem to be highly contagious; a few weeks in, we’re still talking about a few hundred cases, not thousands (this is common in “zoonotic” diseases that move from animals to people; the jump to humans tends to makes them less communicable and less serious).  If your health is compromised, then you hopefully are already taking precautions to ensure that you don’t catch a cold or the flu: wash your hands often, ask people to cover their coughs, etc. While there is no vaccine (yet) for Wuhan coronavirus — it would take several weeks, if not months, to produce one — general sanitary precautions will significantly reduce your risk.

Also, it’s probably not a good idea to travel to Wuhan, and if you recently have, you might want to watch your health carefully for the next few days, observe sanitary precautions, and avoid contact with people whose health is compromised just in case.

According to the Seattle Times, the isolated case in Everett announced today was somoene who recently traveled to Wuhan; the hospital seems to have done everything right, confimed with the CDC that the patient has Wuhan coronavirus, and isolated the patient to avoid further spread.

In the meantime, the WHO and CDC, in partnership with health professionals in China and around the world, have a lot of work to do. Some of the things they need to figure out:

  • What is the range of symptoms?
  • Is it communicable between humans, and if so how easily and by what means?
  • For what period of time are people who are infected with the virus capable of spreading it to others?
  • What animal(s) did it originate from?
  • What is the incubation period, i.e. how many days between when someone contracts it and symptoms start to show?
  • What is the proper treatment? Are antiviral drugs effective against it?
  • Is the virus continuing to mutate?

There simply aren’t enough cases to generate the data to answer all of these questions yet, but the health professionals are on it.

So, in short: so far the Wuhan coronavirus is looking more like “flu” and less like “Spanish flu.” That could change if the virus mutates and as we learn more, so stay tuned, wash your hands, cover your cough, and stay healthy.