Everything you need to know about the coronavirus

Public health experts around the globe are scrambling to understand, track, and contain a new virus that appeared in Wuhan, China, at the beginning of December 2019. The World Health Organization named the disease caused by the virus COVID-19, which references the type of virus and the year it emerged.

You can see where and how many cases of the illness have been reported in this map. So far, there have been over 94,000 confirmed cases and 3,214 deaths. Over 51,000 people have recovered from the illness. The vast majority of the illnesses are still in China, but the rate of new cases there has slowed. The majority of new cases are appearing in other countries outside of China, and there are large outbreaks of the disease in South Korea, Italy, Iran, and Japan. There are over 100 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US.

As this important story continues to unfold, The Verge will update this page with all the latest news and analysis. Our hope is to answer all of your questions as people work to understand this virus and contain its spread.

Table of contents

Where did the virus come from?
So is this the same as SARS?
China lied to the WHO about SARS. Are they lying about this, too?
How dangerous is this new virus?
How fast is the virus spreading?
Can we treat this virus?
How can I protect myself?
Should I cancel my trip to China?
How is China trying to stop the virus?
How at risk is the United States?
How is the virus affecting businesses that operate in China?
Where did the virus come from?

At the end of December, public health officials from China informed the World Health Organization that they had a problem: an unknown, new virus was causing pneumonia-like illness in the city of Wuhan. They quickly determined that it was a coronavirus and that it was rapidly spreading through and outside of Wuhan.

Coronaviruses are common in animals of all kinds, and they sometimes can evolve into forms that can infect humans. Since the start of the century, two other coronaviruses have jumped to humans, causing the SARS outbreak in 2002 and the MERS outbreak in 2012.

Scientists think this new virus first became capable of jumping to humans at the beginning of December. It originally seemed like the virus first infected people at a seafood market in Wuhan and spread from there. But one analysis of early cases of the illness, published January 24th, found that the first patient to get sick did not have any contact with the market. Experts are still trying to trace the outbreak back to its source.

The type of animal the virus originated from is not clear, although one analysis found that the genetic sequence of the new virus is 96 percent identical to one coronavirus found in bats. Both SARS and MERS originated in bats.

So is this the same as SARS?

The new virus isn’t SARS, although that also began in China. Because it comes from the same viral family as SARS, it has some similarities, but it’s an entirely new virus. However, the commonalities mean scientists and public health officials can use what they’ve learned from the past outbreak to try to stop this one.

China lied to the WHO about SARS. Is it lying about this, too?

During the SARS outbreak, Chinese officials attempted to conceal cases from WHO inspectors and limit information, both internally and externally. This time, officials quickly reported the outbreak of the new virus to the WHO, which praised their quick response and transparency in a press conference. China is also allowing a team of WHO experts to assist Chinese public health officials with the ongoing work, the organization announced January 28th.

The US Department of Health and Human Services also said China has been more transparent than they were with SARS. “The Chinese government’s level of cooperation is completely different from what we experienced in 2003,” said department Secretary Alex Azar during a press conference.

But critics and Chinese citizens were skeptical: there were early concerns that Chinese officials were undercounting the number of illnesses and are classifying deaths that might have been from the virus as being from pneumonia. Wuhan police also investigated citizens for spreading what it called rumors online at the start of the outbreak.

(It’s important to note that China isn’t the only country known for concealing the extent of public health problems. In the US, for example, dozens of cities have concealed the amount of lead in their public water supply.)

How dangerous is this new virus?

Right now, it’s hard to say for sure.

It takes information about both how severe an illness is and how easily it can spread to determine how “bad” it can be. Epidemiologists often use this tool to assess new strains of the flu, for example, to guide decision-making:

Image: Centers for Disease Control
If an illness isn’t very severe (and kills only a small percentage of people), but it’s highly transmissible, it can still cause devastating effects — if something affects millions, the small percentage it kills will still be a high number of fatalities.

The WHO named the illness caused by the coronavirus COVID-19 — “co” and “vi” for coronavirus, “d” for disease, and “19” for the year when the disease emerged.

The symptoms of COVID-19, which have ranged from mild, like those in a cold, to severe. Around 80 percent of confirmed cases are mild. That’s 80 percent of the cases that we know about. It’s still possible that there are many more mild cases of the illness that haven’t been flagged, which would shrink the percentage of cases that are severe. About 5 percent of cases are critical, and it appears around half of the people with critical cases of the illness die from it.

So far, the fatality rate for the new illness is around 1 or 2 percent, though it’s too early to say for sure, and that could change as the outbreak progresses. The fatality rate for SARS was about 14 to 15 percent. Most deaths in this outbreak have been in older people and those who have underlying health issues, like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. In that group, the fatality rate for the new coronavirus is much higher: it’s around 14 percent for people over the age of 80, for example.

How fast is the virus spreading?

The virus is moving rapidly around the world. In China, sick people have been infecting others through person-to-person transmission since the start of January. The new coronavirus spread quickly in the contained environment on the cruise ship the Diamond Princess. Clusters of high numbers of cases have appeared in Italy, Iran and South Korea, and it’s possible that many more cases outside of China haven’t been detected. Experts say that it may not be possible to contain a wider spread of the virus.

Early evidence suggested that, like other coronaviruses, the virus jumps between people who are in very close contact with each other, and probably spreads when an infected person sneezes or coughs.

Chinese officials have said that they have seen cases where people with the virus infected others before they start showing symptoms, but there isn’t detailed evidence to say if or how much that is happening. Research out of China showed that people without symptoms still have high levels of the virus in their throats and noses, meaning they may be passing it along if they cough or sneeze. A family in Anyang, China, also appeared to be sickened by an asymptomatic family member, reported a study in JAMA.

If that’s happening regularly, containing the spread of the virus will be more complicated. And even if it was happening, it probably wouldn’t significantly affect the outbreak, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a press conference. “Even if there is some asymptomatic transmission, in all the history of respiratory borne illness, asymptomatic transmission has never been the driver of outbreaks,” he said. “An epidemic is not driven by asymptomatic carriers.”

The WHO says that researchers think each sick person will go on to infect, on average, between 1.4 and 2.5 additional people, though that’s only a preliminary estimate. Other teams of researchers have published their own estimates, with most saying a sick person will infect an average of around two or three people.

Those numbers are called the virus’s R0 (pronounced “R-naught”). The R0 is the mathematical representation of how well an infection might be able to spread. The higher the number, the more potentially spreadable it can be. For comparison, the R0 for SARS was between two and five. But that doesn’t mean each sick person will actually infect that many people; quarantines and other actions taken to control outbreaks of a virus can bring down the number of people a sick person infects.

Can we treat this virus?

There aren’t any proven treatments for COVID-19, but there are dozens of studies underway to try and find some. One leading candidate is remdesivir, an antiviral medication originally developed to treat Ebola. There are clinical trials testing it in patients in China and in the US.

Research teams and pharmaceutical companies are also working to develop a vaccine that can protect people from infection. However, vaccine development takes a long time. Even if everything goes smoothly, it will be around a year to 18 months before one is available, said Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

How can I protect myself?

Based on what we know so far, you can protect yourself with the same measures you’d take (and should be taking) to protect yourself against the flu: wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough, and stay away from people who are sick. Stay home from work or school if you’re feeling sick. It’s totally normal to feel anxious, and there are ways to reduce that anxiety, like by distracting yourself with other activities or keeping the risks in perspective.

If you live in the US, it’s still more likely that you have the flu or the common cold. It’s still flu season, and high levels of flu activity aren’t expected to die down anytime soon. (It’s not too late to get a flu shot!)

Call your doctor if you live in the US and have a fever, a dry cough, have recently been in China, Iran, Italy, Japan, or South Korea, have been in contact with someone who has been to one of those places, or been in contact with someone who has a confirmed case of COVID-19


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