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Coronaviruses: What You Need to Know

A coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan, China in December 2019 has snowballed into the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the virus that causes the disease has infected over 2.2 million people around the world–-killing nearly 150,000 as of April 17, 2020.

This FAQ provides the basics of what a coronavirus is, how it’s transmitted and how you can protect yourself.

What is a coronavirus? Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that typically cause mild respiratory infections like the common cold but also more severe (and potentially deadly) infections. They are zoonotic diseases, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people.

What severe diseases are caused by coronaviruses? A coronavirus that originated in China led to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2003. Another coronavirus emerged in 2012 in Saudia Arabia causing Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

What symptoms do coronaviruses typically cause? How severe are the symptoms in the current outbreak? Common signs of infection include runny nose, cough, fever, sore throat and shortness of breath. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

Why is it called a coronavirus? Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word corona, meaning “crown” or “halo,” because they have “crown-like spikes on their surface,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

How are coronaviruses transmitted between people? Coronaviruses are typically transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets and close contact.

How can I protect myself against coronaviruses? The World Health Organization suggests avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing; covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing; regular hand washing, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth

What treatments are there for coronaviruses? Currently, there are no licensed vaccines or therapeutic agents for coronavirus prevention or treatment though research into potential antivirals is underway.

Should I avoid travel to places affected by the outbreak? The WHO recommends that travelers who are sick delay or avoid travel to affected areas with ongoing transmission of COVID-19. This is particularly important for elderly travelers and people with chronic diseases or underlying health conditions.The WHO is not yet recommending any travel or trade restrictions; its latest recommendations advise international travelers to "practice the usual precautions." A full list of recommendations can be found here

Several countries have enacted travel bans; country-specific details can be found here.

The US Department of State has issued its highest possible travel warning, advising all US citizens to shelter in place or return home. The Department of Homeland Security issued a Notice of Arrival Restrictions requiring American citizens, legal permanent residents, and their immediate families who are returning home to the US must travel through one of 13 airports upon arrival into the country. The latest updates can be found on the CDC website

On March 16 the EU issued a 30-day ban on non-essential travel to at least 26 European countries—and that may be extended. 

Is there a known animal vector for the current outbreak? The outbreak in Wuhan, China has been linked to a large seafood and animal market, suggesting a possible zoonotic origin to the outbreak. However, a specific intermediate host has yet to be determined for the current outbreak.

Stay informed:


CDC 2019 Novel Coronavirus, Wuhan, China, Situation Summary

Comparative therapeutic efficacy of remdesivir and combination lopinavir, ritonavir, and interferon beta against MERS-CoV – Nature Communications, Jan. 2020

European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control: Disease facts about Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV)]

WHO Coronavirus Fact Sheet

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