coronavirus
Coronavirus (Image: CSIRO)

Despite affecting over 24,000 people, causing more than 500 deaths and a whole lot more paranoia, coronavirus is only now about to get a proper name.

Coronavirus technically refers to a broader category of viruses, and so far scientists have been using the placeholder name 2019-nCoV to describe the disease. Naming a new virus is harder than it looks. The perfect name can’t have the potential to be misleading, or have discriminatory references to places or people. It also needs to be sufficiently short, descriptive and catchy.

But finding a name isn’t the only thing confusing scientists and the general public. It turns out there’s an awful lot we still don’t know about the virus.

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What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are named after the crown-like spikes that appear when you observe them under an electron microscope.

Based on early cases, it was initially thought to have originated from animals at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, though this has since been challenged. Past viral outbreaks have also been caused by coronaviruses, notably severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) which killed 774 people in 2003, and the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

What happens when you get infected?

Initially, coronavirus can look like ordinary cold or flu — fever, coughing, sneezing or other respiratory difficulties including shortness of breath, as well as aches and pains.

As the disease gets more severe, it can lead to pneumonia, which involves the lungs becoming inflamed and filled with fluid or pus.

Experts stress there’s still a lot about coronavirus, and its relationship with other diseases, that we don’t know. Abrar Ahmad Chughtai, an epidemiologist from the University of New South Wales, says that what makes this coronavirus dangerous is its novel nature — our bodies aren’t used to it, and there’s less scientific knowledge about how to manage it.

“We’ve been exposed to some viruses many times. But this is a new virus, a completely new pathogen,” Chughtai said

How does it spread?

While it’s known that coronavirus spreads in a similar fashion to the common cold, what is less clear is whether the virus can spread between people who don’t yet display symptoms.

Doctors in China reported asymptomatic spread, a finding that appeared to be backed up by an incident in Germany reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. This would be cause for alarm — if the virus can spread without being detected, it makes management significantly harder.

But more recent analysis has cast doubt on the accuracy of the German case. Chughtai says while there may be asymptomatic spread, recent reports from the World Health Organisation indicate it is fortunately rare and “not a major driver of transmission”.

How deadly is it?

Most people who contract coronavirus don’t die. The mortality rate is still around 2%.

In comparison, SARS had a mortality rate of about 10%. However, there is still some uncertainty about just how accurate these numbers are, and the death toll is likely to rise.

Like most viruses, certain groups are more at risk, Chughtai tells Crikey. 

“If your immune system is good, you can contain viruses more easily. That’s why if you look at age distribution, most people who die are old”.

Other risk factors also influence lethality. The first two victims, for example, were already long-term smokers, making them more vulnerable to respiratory diseases.

Can we treat it?

Currently, there’s no antiviral treatment for coronavirus. Most treatment instead has focused on managing symptoms.

“There is no vaccine at this stage, and it might take six to eight months to develop,” Chughtai says.

But global efforts to develop one have been surging — recently a team based at the University of Queensland have claimed they can develop one in 16 weeks.

Should we be afraid?

In Australia, the short answer is no. On the other hand, many are worried about the impact of hysteria — especially a potential xenophobic backlash against Chinese Australians and international students. 

And as Chughtai says, plenty of conspiracy theories have been circulating about the virus.

“There are lots of rumours and lots of misconceptions. Don’t trust misinformation and don’t panic.” 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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