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2019 Novel Coronavirus: What epidemiologists know so far

Posted at 12:44 PM, Jan 29, 2020

WUHAN, China – Just in time for Lunar New Year celebrations, when many people gather together, the coronavirus – originating from Wuhan, China – is on the move. So far, more than a dozen countries have confirmed cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now screening people traveling from China in 20 U.S. airports – including Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and Los Angeles International Airport. It’s a disease that health officials are taking very seriously.

Dr. Neha Nanda is an infectious disease physician and serves as the healthcare epidemiologist at Keck Medicine of USC. She follows trends of emerging infectious diseases, including the family of coronaviruses. She says it's common for animals to have a coronavirus, but sometimes the disease can spread to humans. It causes respiratory-tract illnesses like a cough, or pneumonia. Health officials are calling this strand the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV.

“Novel in this context what it means is that we have not seen this type of virus before,” Dr. Nanda said.

The most common symptoms infected people are seeing include a cough, fever, breathing difficulties, body aches and chills. It’s basically a severe flu.

“What we know today, may change tomorrow. All the same there are some facts that we do know today, and those facts are: that this virus can infect human beings. What we also know is that it can get transmitted between human beings – so there is person-to-person transmission. We are still trying to figure out – the numbers are still up in the air – how contagious it is between people,” Dr. Nanda said.

While 2019 Novel Coronavirus is unique, Dr. Nanda says there is a genetic similarity between Novel Coronavirus and SARS. SARS – which stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – quickly spread across the world in 2003.

“However, at this time, the mortality does not seem to be as high as it was with SARS. But I think we just have to be patient before we make definitive conclusions,” Dr. Nanda said.

According to the CDC, more than a hundred people have died from Novel Coronavirus so far. Dr. Nanda says it’s always a good idea to practice cough etiquette and good hand hygiene to prevent the spread of any illness. She’s also urging everyone to get their flu shot since influenza is more prevalent than Novel Coronavirus.

“It’s prudent that we be cautious because we don’t know what this virus can do. But we don’t want anxiety to reach such a level that there is fear created, thereby paralyzing our daily work,” Dr. Nanda said.

If you have a fever, lower respiratory problems, and have traveled in the last 14 days to Wuhan in China, or you’ve been in contact with someone who’s been confirmed to have the virus, please contact your primary care physician.