What is Covid-19?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. The World Health Organisation has declared it a pandemic.

What are the symptoms this coronavirus causes?

The virus can cause pneumonia-like symptoms. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work, and there is currently no vaccine. Recovery depends on the strength of the immune system.

The National Health Service (NHS) has identified the symptoms as experiencing either:

  • a high temperature – you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
  • a new continuous cough – this means you’ve started coughing repeatedly

Should I go to the doctor if I have a temperature or a cough?

No. The NHS advice is now that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days. If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home. This applies to everyone, regardless of whether they have travelled abroad. Many countries have imposed travel bans and lockdown conditions in order to try and halt the spread of the virus. You should check with your local authorities for the latest advice on seeking medical assistance.

How many people have been affected?

China’s national health commission confirmed human-to-human transmission in January. As of 20 March, more than 244,000 people have been infected in more than 150 countries, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. There have been over 10,000 deaths globally. Just over 3,200 of those deaths have occurred in mainland China. Italy has seen over 3,400 deaths. Many of those who have died had underlying health conditions, which the coronavirus complicated. More than 86,000 people are recorded as having recovered from the coronavirus.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in, but estimates of the mortality rate have ranged from well below 1% in the young to over 3% among those who are elderly or have underlying health conditions. Seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Another key unknown is how contagious the coronavirus is. A crucial difference is that unlike flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means it is more difficult for vulnerable members of the population – elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – to protect themselves. Hand-washing and avoiding other people if you feel unwell are important.

Have there been other coronaviruses?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.