Coronavirus has swept across much of China after first appearing in the Wuhan province, sparking fears that a massive epidemic is about to run rampant across the globe.
The disease, deemed COVID-19 by the epidemiologists working on stopping this epidemic from actually happening, is a lot like the flu but with some extra respiratory complications – symptoms include sneezing, coughing, and a fever.
Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of misinformation spreading about the coronavirus (which is officially titled SARS-CoV-2) as it becomes more widespread. Fear-mongering news reports and tweets abound, giving people a false sense of how dangerous the virus causing COVID-19 actually is. That’s why you’ll find three essential facts about SARS-CoV-2 in this article.
1. SARS-CoV-2 Likely Came From Animal Hosts
One of the biggest pieces of misinformation that you can find is that SARS-CoV-2 was a genetically engineered super-virus, created by malicious actors to spread around the world.
That is legitimately impossible and is simply untrue because this coronavirus is closely related to multiple other coronaviruses that have been shown to jump from animals to humans and cause disease.
In fact, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is caused by a virus that primarily is found in local dromedary camels that jumps to humans who spend lots of time near these camels.
SARS-CoV-2 likely jumped from an animal reservoir host to humans in the open-air markets of Wuhan, where multiple animals like pigs, bats, and even koalas were concentrated in tiny spaces.
These environments, combined with large volumes of people coming to purchase these animals, led to the perfect storm of the virus jumping to humans and spreading.
However, it’s notoriously difficult to track exactly what host species a virus came from and whether that’s important for this virus. Instead, it’s important to know that human-caused living conditions for these animals likely caused this jump and not an effort to genetically engineer a new virus.
2. Transmission Modes Aren’t Fully Understood
Like most emerging diseases, a concrete understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted from person to person isn’t totally understood yet.
That’s why quarantine procedures are so strict across the world, from cruise ships locking down completely, to entire provinces of China not allowing individuals to enter or exit.
However, researchers do know that close contact appears to be involved in transmission. Close contact suggests that the virus is likely contact-borne or spread through respiratory droplets (i.e., small particles from coughing or sneezing that can only travel small distances).
It is unlikely that this virus is aerosolized beyond respiratory droplets, as transmission would be far more concentrated and widespread than it currently is.
3. Coronavirus is Unlikely to Kill You
Much like the flu, coronavirus appears to disproportionately impact the wellbeing of older individuals. Curiously, most pathogens that we know impact older individuals also tend to target children as well – but this, fortunately, does not seem to be the case with SARS-CoV-2. Current estimates of mortality vary wildly depending on the group predicting these rates, with some reporting mortality as low as 0.2% and some as high as 4%.
But these estimates are almost all certainly flawed, something that the researchers all acknowledge. Because most early cases go unreported and only the most severe cases go to the hospital early, mortality rates are far overestimated. Mortality is likely orders of magnitude lower than we currently think.
While it is scary to think about a new virus infecting people around the world, we must understand as much as we can about the virus before we make non-fact-based, scary claims about it.
With news and media focused on the deaths and terrible stories associated with this outbreak, it’s easy to only think the worst. But with the facts here, and with all of the new science being shared in journals and websites like bioRxiv, Nature, and many others, you’ll be able to find out exactly what is known and what is unknown about this new pathogen.