What we know about the coronavirus disease outbreak: COVID-19

© Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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WHAT IS THE DISEASE?

The current outbreak of coronavirus disease, now called COVID-19, was first reported in Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019. Because the disease is caused by a new, or "novel" coronavirus, much remains to be understood about it. However, as with other coronaviruses, droplet infection spread by coughing appears to be the main mode of transmission. The main symptoms include general weakness and fever, coughing, and sometimes difficulty breathing in later stages of the disease. In 20 percent of the reported cases, it has led to pneumonia. The early symptoms may be mild and the severity of illness ranges widely.

WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT THE VIRUS?

The virus has been identified as 2019-nCoV, which stands for a novel coronavirus discovered in 2019. According to the World Health Organization, it is from the same family of viruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV), but it is not the same virus. In February, the WHO gave the disease caused by this virus a new name: COVID-19. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, most of which are harmless for humans. Four types are known to cause colds while two other types can cause severe lung infections—SARS and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), both of which are similar to COVID-19.

Like all viruses, 2019-nCoV needs cells of living beings in order to multiply. This virus seems to target cells in the lungs, and possibly other cells in the respiratory system. Cells infected by the virus will produce more virus particles, which can then spread to other people, for instance by coughing.

HOW DANGEROUS IS THE DISEASE?

Our understanding of the virus and the disease is still evolving. Some people with COVID-19 have become very sick, while others were only mildly sick. The respiratory disease is likely more dangerous for elderly people or people suffering from other infections or ailments. Most cases reported to date have been mild or moderate, with around 20 percent of those infected experiencing severe illness. 

The virus can be transmitted from person to person, usually after close contact with an infected patient. It seems the virus can be spread by sick people coughing. However, it is not yet fully understood how easily the virus can be transmitted. 

WHAT IS THE LINK TO SARS/MERS?

SARS and MERS are both infections of the respiratory system. They are caused by types of coronavirus (SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, respectively) related to 2019-nCoV.

SARS was discovered in 2002 in mainland China and spread to a number of other countries. More than 8,000 people fell sick, and 774 of them died of the disease. Since 2004, no new cases of SARS have been recorded. MSF intervened in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam to support the response to the SARS outbreak.

MERS was discovered in 2012, when an epidemic started in Saudi Arabia. More than 1,200 people fell sick, and 449 of them died. MERS still infects people occasionally, primarily in Middle Eastern countries. MSF has not intervened during outbreaks of MERS.

WHAT CAN BE DONE TO RESPOND TO THE COVID-19 OUTBREAK?

Chinese health authorities are leading response efforts, including diagnosis of the virus, patient care, contact tracing, and investigations into a better understanding of the disease. Since it is a new virus, there is currently no vaccine or specific treatment, although supportive care is provided to treat symptoms). Knowledge and understanding of the virus and the disease are still evolving.

We do know that in a respiratory disease outbreak, it is important to use proper hand hygiene and coughing etiquette, avoid close contact with people showing symptoms of respiratory diseases, and inform a doctor when feeling sick. Public awareness about the disease and enhanced prevention measures are key components to contain the outbreak. MSF has begun providing support for the outbreak response in Hong Kong and mainland China.

WHAT DID MSF DO DURING THE SARS OUTBREAK? 

During the SARS outbreak, MSF supported the Bach Mai hospital in Vietnam with an isolation ward. In mainland China, we trained health care staff in the city of Guangzhou in infection prevention and control measures. In Hong Kong, we provided support including training of health care staff in infection prevention and control, health education, and donations of personal protective equipment.


HOW CAN I PREVENT MYSELF FROM BEING INFECTED?

As with other coronaviruses, droplet infection seems to be the main mode of transmission, so infection prevention control measures such as hand-washing as well as proper coughing and sneezing etiquette are important.

Hand hygiene is paramount, so wash your hands often with soap and water. Use enough soap, and make sure all parts of both your hands are washed. Spend at least 20 seconds washing your hands. If there’s no visible dirt on your hands, an alcohol-based gel is also a good option.

If you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue, or with the inside of your elbow. Put used tissues in the bin immediately, just like used masks, and wash your hands.

A mask is a good preventive measure to protect yourself from breathing in the virus, or from transmitting it if you are sick. Only touch the strings of the mask when you take it off. Put a used mask directly in the trash and wash your hands.