VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Novel coronavirus: Six things you need to know

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As the Duterte government scrambles to cope with the fast-spreading novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV, the Department of Health (DOH) announced Feb. 5 the third confirmed patient in the country: a 60-year-old tourist from Wuhan City, China, the center of the virus outbreak.

Declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization (WHO), the newly discovered 2019-nCoV has affected more than 40,000 globally and killed 910 as of Feb. 10, all in China, save for two: one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.

Public anxiety over the nCoV outbreak has been compounded by misinformation spreading on social media. Prior to the announcement of the country’s first positive case on Jan. 31, for example, a report about a five-year-old boy in Cebu who tested positive for “coronavirus” was taken by many to mean he had contracted the new virus.

Several posts speculating about the origin and modes of transmission of the virus have also made the rounds online. Within the first week of the outbreak, pharmacies in some cities ran out of surgical masks and protective respirators.

What exactly is the new coronavirus? Here are six things you need to know:

What is coronavirus?

Coronavirus (CoV) is “a large family of viruses found in humans and animals,” according to a WHO explainer. Its name is derived from the appearance of spikes or crowns -- “corona” in Latin -- on the virus’ surface.

Contrary to the misconception of many, however, “coronavirus” does not solely or immediately refer to the virus recently presenting in different countries.

To date, seven strains in the coronavirus family are known to affect humans:

  • four human coronaviruses (Betacoronaviruses HCoV-OC43 and HCoV-HKU1, and Alphacoronaviruses HCoV-229E and HCoV-NL63) have been found to cause cases of the common cold (sipon) and some respiratory tract infections;
  • the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), first found in a patient in Ha Noi, Vietnam in May 2003, which later on spread to China and other neighboring countries;
  • the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), first identified in Saudi Arabia in September 2012 and later on presented in 26 other countries; and lastly,
  • the 2019-nCoV.

“[Coronavirus] causes about 10 to 30 percent of upper respiratory tract infections in adults and we may have been infected unknowingly with this virus in the previous months of our lives,” said Celia Carlos, director of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), the DOH’s infectious disease specialty center, in a press conference on Feb. 3.

What is the novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV?

“A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans,” the WHO explains in a novel coronavirus Q&A page.

The new coronavirus, now called 2019-nCoV, was discovered just last Jan. 7. Chinese authorities identified it after looking into 44 patients in Wuhan City, Hubei province in China who all showed signs of pneumonia of unknown origin from Dec. 31, 2019 to Jan. 3, according to WHO’s first situation report on the outbreak.

The virus has sickened over 40,100 people in mainland China and 368 in 27 other countries as of Feb. 10, according to a Johns Hopkins monitoring database. There have been 908 deaths already, all in China, with 871 in Hubei alone. Only two fatalities have been recorded outside the mainland, a Chinese tourist from Wuhan in the Philippines and a Hong Kong resident who recently visited Wuhan.

On Feb. 9, the death toll of the 2019-nCoV outbreak -- now at 910 -- surpassed that of the SARS outbreak in 2003, which recorded 774 deaths.

How is it spread?

Coronaviruses are “zoonotic, meaning, they are transmitted between animals and people,” says WHO. Several detailed investigations show SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans in China in 2002 and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, WHO adds.

The new virus can also be transmitted among humans.

“2019-nCoV causes respiratory disease and can be transmitted from person to person, usually after close contact with an infected patient, for example, in a household, workplace, or health care centre,” WHO writes in its Q&A.

“Infection is mainly acquired via respiratory droplets -- when an infected person coughs or sneezes. That is why it is advised that people with respiratory infections cover their mouth,” RITM’s Carlos said.

What are the common symptoms of having acquired the 2019-nCoV?

Coronavirus presents itself in a wide range of illnesses from “asymptomatic infection (having no symptom) to simple cough and colds, fever and diarrhea to pneumonias, to severe respiratory failure, and, in fact, to death.”

The main manifestations, however, are fever and cough, which were present in 83 percent and 82 percent, respectively, of confirmed 2019-nCoV cases, the RITM chief adds.

How can you avoid getting infected by the virus?

Shortly after the first positive case of 2019-nCoV in the country was announced on Jan. 31, hordes of people went to medical supply stores to buy protective face masks. There has been a temporary shortage of masks in some cities since, including in Metro Manila.

WHO said the use of masks is helpful in preventing the spread of some respiratory diseases but continuously reminds that using it alone is not enough to prevent getting infected.

Carlos reiterated the DOH advice on how to protect oneself. She said “clean [our] hands; avoid touching our eyes, nose or mouth with unclean hands or unwashed hands; avoid close contact with anyone with flu-like symptoms or colds; and avoid unprotected contact with live, wild, or farm animals.”

Regarding the use of masks, Carlos says she does not yet recommend it to persons who are not sick, and those who are not health workers.

“At the moment, there is no community transmission yet of the novel coronavirus in the Philippines. We are at the containment stage, which means we are trying to prevent the virus from spreading to the community by identifying [people] who can possibly be infected,” she said.

“Let us reserve our masks to those who need them,” Carlos added.

Is contracting the virus fatal?

On Feb. 2, the Philippines announced the first 2019-nCoV-related death outside mainland China.

A DOH press release said the 44-year-old patient from Wuhan developed “severe pneumonia due to viral and bacterial infections (S. pneumoniae and Influenza B),” over the course of his hospital admission.

On the other hand, his companion -- a 38-year-old female tourist from Wuhan, the first 2019-nCoV-positive patient in the Philippines -- tested negative twice and has already been discharged from the hospital.

According to data presented by Carlos during the media briefing, the virus’ fatality rate -- the death rate of people who get infected in comparison with other infectious diseases -- is relatively low.

“If we compare the case fatality rates...it’s about 2 percent compared to 99 percent of cases of rabies where we all know almost all people die of rabies once infected; compared to MERS of 34 percent; and the Ebola of 39.8 or close to 40 percent,” she said.

More information about coronaviruses can be found in a recently published WHO Q&A here. WHO has also debunked several myths surrounding coronavirus causes and treatments, which can be found here.


Sources

Johns Hopkins Center for System Science and Engineering, Coronavirus 2019-nCoV Global Cases database

World Health Organization, Q&A on coronaviruses, Feb. 2, 2020

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Factsheet for health professionals on Coronaviruses, Jan. 30, 2020

World Health Organization, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

World Health Organization, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV)

World Health Organization, Novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV Situation Report-1, Jan. 21, 2020

World Health Organization, Coronavirus

RTVMalacanang YouTube channel, “Press Briefing - Laging Handa 2/3/2020,” Feb. 3, 2020

Reuters, “'Enemy of mankind': Coronavirus deaths top SARS as China returns to work,” Feb. 9, 2020

CBS News, “Coronavirus updates: Global death toll surpasses 2003 SARS epidemic,” Feb. 9, 2020

The New York Times, “Deaths in China Surpass Toll From SARS,” Feb. 9, 2020

Inquirer.net, BREAKING: First nCoV patient in PH has recovered, now discharged from hospital, Feb. 10, 2020

GMA News Online, Philippines’ 1st confirmed nCoV case discharged from hospital, Feb. 10, 2020

CNN Philippines, First coronavirus patient in PH recovers, discharged from hospital – DOH, Feb. 10, 2020


(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)

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