What Do You Need to Know About Wuhan Coronavirus

In late December 2019, people in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province began falling sick with an unusual pneumonia. Healthcare workers, for whom the 2003-2004 SARS pandemic was not a distant memory, sensed something was wrong. Within a matter of weeks, it was announced that the cause of these illnesses was a never-before-seen coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2.

What is SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19?

Sometimes called Wuhan coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus, a family of viruses to which SARS and MERS also belong. These viruses most often reside in bats, which they do not harm, and usually come to infect humans through unnatural or forced interactions between people and animals through things like wildlife trade. When it infects people, the illness is called COVID-19; the first cases came from a market in Wuhan where live animals were sold for consumption.

While one paper alleging that snakes may have played some role in SARS-CoV-2’s spillover into people, EcoHealth Alliance does not believe the evidence cited within is enough to suggest a snake reservoir.

Not all coronaviruses have the ability to spread human-to-human, SARS-CoV-2 does. This is how the virus went from a small cluster of cases in one Chinese city to a global outbreak in a matter of weeks.

SARS virus (coronavirus)

Coronaviruses are named for the appearance of a "crown-like" structure when viewed under a microscope. Pictured is the coronavirus responsible for SARS.

So What’s the Real Threat?

There is a lot we don’t know about the virus. Its mortality rate so far has been about 4%, which is well below the mortality rate for SARS, though all of this could change relatively quickly. Like most viruses, it does seem that those with pre-existing conditions are more harmed by COVID-19 than the otherwise healthy.

SARS, in the early part of this century end up costing the global economy between $30 and $50 billion. It’s likely that SARS-CoV-2 will have a similarly devastating impact. We’ve already seen stocks take a hit and that seems likely to continue as fears over international travel persist.

How Do I Stay Safe?

Coronaviruses spread much like other respiratory viruses so basic hygiene like cleaning your hands regularly with soap and water, covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and avoiding contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms will go a long way. It’s also always best to cook meat and eggs thoroughly and to avoid unprotected contact with wild or farm animals.

Wuhan wildlife market

This is the wildlife market in Wuhan where it's believe the outbreak of COVID-19 began.

How Do We Stop Viruses Like SARS-CoV-2?

Most of the new and emerging infectious diseases we see are zoonotic in nature, meaning they originate in animals before spilling into people. In many cases, behavioral interventions can be enormously effective at preventing these spillover events. Imagine how much easier it would be to prevent one action one time that leads to disease spread rather than having to track and treat each individual case of infection following the start of an outbreak.

EcoHealth Alliance’s research has calculated there are as many as 1.67 million unknown viruses out there; this time last year, SARS-CoV-2 was one of them.

We have seen how effective prevention can be when it comes to chronic diseases like lung and heart disease. Interventions like smoking cessation, diet, and exercise are highly effective at preventing disease in the first place, not to mention far less expensive than treatment after the fact. The same can be true for infectious diseases. It won’t be easy and it will require major global cooperation, but at EcoHealth Alliance we believe that if we invest in prevention for infectious disease, in the future we can stop outbreaks like this one from even happening in the first place.

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