Coronaviruses, according to the World Health Organization, are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
The coronavirus known now as COVID-19 is a new strain discovered in 2019, and has not been previously identified in humans.
Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. Detailed investigations found that SARS was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS from dromedary camels to humans. Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans.
Common signs of COVID-19 infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties, according to the World Health Organization. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, SARS, kidney failure, and death.
A study published February 24 in The Journal of the American Medical Association that was conducted by researchers from China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention says clinical findings on 72,314 COVID-19 cases reported in mainland China through February 11 revealed a case-fatality rate of 2.3 percent, suggesting most cases are mild, but the disease hits the elderly the hardest.
Eighty-seven percent of patients were 30 to 79 years old (38,680 cases). This age group was the most affected by a wide margin, followed by ages 20 to 29 (3619 cases, or 8 percent); 80 and older (1408 cases, or 3 percent); and 1 percent each in ages less than 10 and 10 to 19 years old.
Of the confirmed cases, 1023 patients died from the virus, which accounts for the 2.3 percent fatality rate. The fatality rate was 14.8 percent in patients 80 and older, and 8 percent in patients ages 70 to 79.
Eighty-one percent of cases in The Journal of the American Medical Association-published study were classified as mild, meaning they did not result in pneumonia or only resulted in mild pneumonia. Fourteen percent of cases were severe, marked by difficulty breathing, and 5 percent were critical, signifying respiratory failure, septic shock, and/or multiple organ dysfunction or failure.
In comparison to SARS and MERS coronaviruses, which were both identified in the past 20 years, COVID-19 is likely more highly transmissible but not as deadly, the researchers noted. SARS has a case-fatality rate of 9.6 percent; MERS 34.4 percent. Unlike SARS and MERS, hospital-based outbreaks do not seem to be a hallmark of COVID-19 at this time.
Connor Reed, 25, a British man who works at a school in Wuhan, spent 40 days in lockdown with COVID-19. He got confirmation he had the virus in late December 2019, with initial symptoms being a stuffy nose and ear and sinus problems.
“But then you get better before you get worse,” he told the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 News. “That’s when I got hit with the flu. I’ve had the flu half a dozen times, but this was probably the worst I’ve felt with that. It really was quite bad. It wasn’t life-threatening, but I did feel terrible.”
Reed said he was stuck in bed, had a headache, and just generally felt unwell. He was recovering from the flu before he was hit with pneumonia, which he said he’d never had before. That’s when he went to the hospital.
“It feels like you’ve only got 20 percent lung function,” Reed said. “You can’t take a full breath like you need to. If you stand up and walk into the kitchen, you’re out of breath. It also sounds like you’re breathing through a bag. Your breath is crackly and croaky.”
According to the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure. The organization also lists persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, and bluish lips or face as additional potential warning signs.
British couple David and Sally Abel, from Northamptonshire, were transferred from a Japanese cruise ship quarantined near Yokohama and taken to the hospital in February after testing positive for the virus. Of the 3711 tourists aboard the Diamond Princess, 705 became infected.
David Abel, 74, posted a video March 14 on YouTube saying the couple, who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, flew home after getting the all-clear they no longer tested positive for COVID-19.
Abel said besides a cold, his initial symptoms included shortness of breath. He said he was considered “higher-priority” for testing because he is an insulin-dependent diabetic.
“It was exhausting,” he said of the testing, which was conducted over an entire day for the pair. “We had X-rays, a CT-scan, EKGs, loads of blood tests — they did every test conceivable.”
They also tested positive for acute and mild pneumonia. Because everything was viral, not bacterial, the Abels had to wait for the body to heal itself.
“The nurses and the doctors were absolutely amazing,” David Abel said. “They continued monitoring us. They kept us totally informed.”
The World Health Organization lists standard recommendations to prevent infection spread as regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness, like coughing and sneezing.
“I’d advise that people don’t panic. Panic doesn’t help anybody,” Reed said. “If you are infected, don’t go out and infect other people. Don’t think about yourself, but think about other people. Stay at home — not because it’s uncomfortable, but to protect the people around you.”