What is this virus?

2019 novel coronavirus, aka 2019-nCoV, belongs to a family of viruses called coronavirus. These are very common viruses that infect a wide range of animals including humans and can cause mild to severe disease, from colds to severe pneumonia.

Coronaviruses are often transmitted between animals and people (this means they are zoonotic). Well known examples are the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) that made the leap from civet cats to humans in 2007, and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) that jumped from dromedary camels to humans in 2014. Both caused many deaths, MERS was more lethal. This new virus appears less aggressive that SARS and MERS.

On New Year’s Eve China advised the World Health Organization (WHO) that they were seeing cases of severe pneumonia of unknown cause. A week later they had identified a new coronavirus as the culprit (2019-nCoV). I think it needs a new name, this one is a bit boring. Given it emerged in China maybe CARS-CoV might be catchy. I recommend the WHO pages on this emerging threat.

Read more: WHO: Coronavirus not an international emergency

How much is known about it?

In less than a month the following has been established:

  • Identifying the virus enables identification of cases – now we know what to look for
  • The virus can be transmitted person-to-person, not just from animal to person. This significantly increases the chances of spread.
  • There is an average of 10-days between infection and detection
  • The full genome was published in the public domain on GenBank and in the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) portal. This allows researchers all over the world to start working on solutions
  • Researchers at the Imperial College in London carried out some modelling which suggested that there must have been many more cases than had been notified based on the spread. At the time of the modelling (Jan 17th) they estimated about 1700 compared to the 60 or so confirmed reported. Note the lower estimate was 427 and the upper estimate 4471 and these do not include mild cases or cases with no symptoms. More cases means more potential for spread.
  • The US CDC have already developed a real time PCR test that can diagnose this virus. They will soon share these tests through their International Reagent Resource, which makes reagents and tools such as detection kits available to users.

This is a pretty impressive international response!