Coronavirus: what it is, causes, symptoms and prevention
Are there reasons to be afraid of a Covid-19 pandemic?
As of this writing (February 28, 2020), 82,104 cases of coronavirus have been reported and 2,744 have died worldwide.. Although almost all cases are in China, the virus has crossed borders and the fear of a worldwide pandemic is being more harmful to society than the germ itself.
We will now analyze the nature of this virus, detailing both the causes of contagion and its symptoms, as well as its actual severity. For as we shall see below, the coronavirus is not much more dangerous than the influenza virus.
In fact, the flu kills almost half a million people every year. Where is the news? Where is the fear? The difference between the Wuhan coronavirus and the influenza coronavirus is basically that the former is a novelty and the latter is not.. And fear, in the field of public health, is our worst enemy.
- You may be interested in this article published in MédicoPlus: "The 17 myths about Coronavirus, disproved".
What is coronavirus?
The Wuhan coronavirus, also known as Covid-19is a virus of the Coronavirus family that has recently emerged in China for reasons that remain unclear. In any case, it is a new virus that infects the cells of the lungs, causing pneumonia with severe symptoms.
The problem with the virus is not its lethality, which, as we shall see later, is not higher than that of other common diseases. It is its ease of human-to-human transmission and the fact that it is an "unknown" to our immune system that is causing panic around the world.
What must be made very clear is that the coronavirus is not going to cause a mass extinction, that young and/or healthy people have nothing to worry about, because the biggest enemy we are facing is not the virus itself, but the state of alarm that the media are inciting and the "fake news" and hoaxes that are spreading uncontrollably through the network.
How does it spread?
The problem with the coronavirus is that it meets the ideal conditions to cause a worldwide pandemic, and we are not talking about deaths, we are talking about the number of cases. The fact is that human-to-human transmission of the virus is possible and, moreover, it follows the most effective route of contagion for viruses: the air..
The coronavirus is transmitted between people through respiratory droplets that an infected person generates when talking, coughing or sneezing. These "saliva droplets" are microscopic and carry the virus through the air.
Once expelled into the air, these droplets can fall directly on a healthy person or be deposited on inanimate objects. If they fall on a person, they may be inhaled directly and reach the person's lungs, thus opening the door for the virus to enter the respiratory system, or they may go to the person's hands or other parts of the body and then, if the person bites their nails, holds their hands to their face, scratches their eyes, etc., they may also allow the virus to enter their body.
But what must be clear is that these respiratory particles cannot travel in the air more than 1 meter, because they end up falling quickly to the ground by the simple action of gravity.
And another way, which is the one that generates more fear, is that you can become infected by touching objects contaminated with the particles with the virus. But this must be qualified. While it is true that the virus can be transmitted through coins, tables, doorknobs, credit cards, armrests, etc., it resists very little time outside the human body. In fact, within a few hours of being on one of these objects, it dies.
So, yes, it is quite contagious, yes, it is quite contagiousbut in the same way as the common cold or the flu. It is not an extremely contagious "super" virus. The chances of contagion are no greater than that of other viral diseases that follow this route of contagion.
Coronavirus is not transmitted by pets, mosquito bites, nor can we be infected after receiving a package or letter from China.
What are the symptoms?
The coronavirus infects the cells of the lungs and begins to damage them, so the disease has an aggressive symptomatology but not very different from that of a pneumonia: difficulty breathing, headache, fever, chills, general malaise, weakness and fatigue, runny nose, diarrhea...
And here comes the important part: in 98% of cases, the problems end here. The hospitalization of those affected should not be a cause for alarm, as people with pneumonia are also admitted. It is the best way to control the symptoms, prevent complications and, very importantly, reduce the risk of further spread of the virus.
Preventing contagion by hospitalizing those affected does not mean that it will be responsible for an apocalypse, but health systems cannot expose themselves to all hospitals being filled with people with this disease, as they would not be able to offer services to everyone.
Because although it is normal that it is scary to hear and know that a new virus is spreading at great speed and that some people are dying, it must be made clear that serious complications (including death) are reserved almost exclusively for the at-risk population, who, just as with influenza, are at risk. which, as with influenza, are the elderly and the immunocompromised.
Is it very lethal?
No. Coronavirus is not very lethal. At least, no more than the flu. The mortality rate is 2.3%. In other words, for every 100 infected, about 2 people die. But do we know what is the mortality rate of influenza? Influenza has a mortality rate of 1.9%, although it depends on the virus circulating in each season.
Millions of cases of influenza are diagnosed worldwide every year and between 300,000 and 600,000 people die. This happens every year but no alarms are raised, because young and healthy people do not have any problem with the flu, it resolves itself.
Therefore, the coronavirus is not very lethal. Very lethal are diseases like Ebola, with a lethality that can be as high as 90%. A 2.3% is nothing in comparison, because most deaths due to coronavirus have been in the elderly, immunocompromised, asthmatics, diabetics, cancer patients.
For 98% of the population, coronavirus disease will be no more serious than pneumonia, and they will recover without major complications.and they will recover without major complications after a few days. Again, it is the fear that is doing the most damage, not the virus.
Can it be prevented and treated?
Prevention is possible and, although there is no cure, treatments can be offered to reduce its severity and avoid the development of complications. As far as prevention is concerned, although this is difficult as it is airborne, there are ways to reduce the risk of being infected.
Continuously wash your hands with soap and water, avoid crowds of people if you live in a place where cases have been diagnosed, wear a mask, do not touch too many objects in the street and on public transport, do not approach people who are coughing or sneezing... It is also important to remember that there is currently no vaccine and that despite what has been said, vaccines against pneumonia do not work.
And as far as treatment is concerned, while it is true that there is no cure, this should not set off alarm bells. There is no cure for any viral disease. We are still unable to treat the common cold or the flu. In the case of coronavirus disease, the body must be left to neutralize the virus itself.
What hospitals offer are supportive therapies to alleviate symptoms and reduce the risk of developing serious complications.The risk of serious complications is obviously there. But the treatments offered in hospitals, keeping the patient under observation, monitoring clinical signs and administering Antiviral drugs are the best strategy to help the body eliminate the virus.
And in the vast majority of cases, as long as these hospital-based aids can be offered, the body will overcome the disease. Therefore, seeing that governments are closing air connections with other countries or recommending not to go out in the street should not alarm us. They do this not because it is a very deadly pathogen, but to minimize the number of cases and thus ensure that those who become ill can receive the necessary medical support.
So, is there cause for alarm?
It is perfectly normal to feel fear, as it is a natural survival response.. But in the midst of this uncertainty, what we know for sure about the virus is that it is objectively no more dangerous than a simple flu. We have all suffered from the flu at some time and nothing happened. The same applies to this virus.
In addition, it should be taken into account that the media is trying to sell and "take advantage" of this novelty and that the strategies and recommendations of the governments are not because this virus will kill us all, but because it is necessary to minimize the number of cases so that all people who are going to be infected can receive the necessary treatment to ensure that their body resolves the disease on its own.
- European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. (2020) "Outbreak of acute respiratory syndrome associated with a novel coronavirus, China; First cases imported in the EU/EEA; second update". ECDC.
- Read, J.M., Bridgen, J.R.E., Cummings, D.A.T. et al. (2020) "Novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV: early estimation of epidemiological parameters and epidemic predictions". medRxiv.
- Ministry of Health. (2020) "Questions and answers about novel coronavirus 2019 (2019-nCoV)". Government of Spain.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)