Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): All You Need to Know

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The deadly new strain of coronavirus, 2019-novel Coronavirus, has taken the lives of over 130 people in China and has infected thousands more across the world. Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, along with the nearby areas, has been quarantined by the Chinese government to curb the spreading of the disease. India is currently working to pre-empt the spread of the 2019 novel Coronavirus.

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What is Coronavirus?

  • The coronavirus is a class of RNA based viruses.
  • The name is derived from the Latin word, ‘corona’ meaning crown. This is in reference to their crown-like characteristic appearance.
  • There are 4 genera of the virus group- Alphacoronavirus, Betacoronavirus, Gammacoronavirus and the Deltacoronavirus.
  • There are currently 7 known strains of coronaviruses that affect humans. The latest addition is the Novel Coronavirus – also known as the Wuhan Coronavirus.
  • These strains are:
  1. Human Coronavirus 229E
  2. Human Coronavirus OC43
  3. SARS Coronavirus – causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
  4. Human Coronavirus NL63 or the New Haven Coronavirus
  5. Human Coronavirus HKU1
  6. MERS Coronavirus – causes the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome
  7. 2019-Novel Coronavirus or the Wuhan Coronavirus
  • The Wuhan Coronavirus belongs to the Betacoronavirus genus.
  • Strains of the virus affect other life forms too. Example: Avian Coronavirus, Bovine Coronavirus etc.
  • The viruses were first discovered in the 1960s.
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How did the 2019-Novel Coronavirus outbreak initiate?

  • The origin of the virus is still unknown.
  • However, it appears to have originated from Wuhan seafood market where wild animals including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats and snakes are traded illegally.
  • 2019-nCoV are known to jump from animals to humans, so it is thought that the first people infected with the disease – a group primarily made up of stallholders from the seafood market – contracted it from their contact with animals.
  • Studies show that it is more likely to have come from bats as a team of virologists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology released a detailed paper showing that the new coronavirus’ genetic makeup is 96% identical to that of a coronavirus found in bats.
  • Bats were also the source for the SARS virus.

What are the symptoms of Coronavirus?

  • The coronaviruses are noted for affecting the upper respiratory tract and the gastrointestinal tract of the patients.
  • According to the World Health Organisation, the symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.
  • In the more severe cases, it can lead to pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
  • The most vulnerable to severe infections are those with heart, lung disease or weak immune symptoms and infants and older adults.
  • The incubation period of coronavirus is still unknown. Some say it could be between 10 to 14 days.

How dangerous is coronavirus?

  • In China, 132 have died and there are at least 6,061 confirmed cases in the country – surpassing the number of Chinese SARS cases during the deadly 2003 outbreaks. The infection has spread across the whole of China, even to the remote, rural corners of the country.
  • Outside of mainland China, 91 cases have been reported in over a dozen countries. Most of these cases have a direct link to Wuhan.
  • This shows it can transmit more readily between humans than SARS, a similar coronavirus that led to the death of almost 800 people after it originated in China 17 years ago.
  • However, the new virus is less virulent than SARS that killed 10% of those who were infected.
  • MERS, another such coronavirus, though did not spread as widely, was more deadly, killing a third of those it infected.
  • So far, 2019-nCoV has caused severe respiratory disease in about a quarter of the confirmed cases and has killed 2 to 3% of patients.
  • However, experts state that fatality rates are hard to estimate in the early stages of an outbreak and the virus may mutate as it passes between people.
  • Also, it is impossible to predict whether genetic changes will make it more or less virulent.

What is the scenario in China?

  • China’s Wuhan is the ground zero of the 2019-Novel Coronavirus outbreak.
  • The virus was identified in January by WHO but the first infection is reported to have occurred in December 2019.
  • From China, the virus has spread across to other countries in other continents. The countries that confirmed the new cases include:
  • Asia: Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Korean Republic, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Vietnam, Nepal, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and UAE.
  • Europe: Germany and France
  • Americas: USA, Canada
  • Australia
  • Fourteen cities, including Wuhan, are currently under lockdown. Millions of people live in these cities. Wuhan itself has 11 million people.
  • Several more cities have suspended transportation services and restricted travel from these cities.
  • Timing of this outbreak coincides with the annual Chunyun Migration event – the largest human migration event ahead of the Chinese New Year.

What is being done to stop the spread of the infection?

  • Currently, there is no vaccine to cure the coronavirus infection.
  • Apart from ceasing the travels to and from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, the Chinese government had also started the monitoring and disinfection efforts before the Lunar New Year holidays, which started on 25th January this year.
  • Airport authorities across the world are screening the passengers from Wuhan.
  • The World Health Organisation’s standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include:
  • Regular hand washing
  • Covering mouth and nose while coughing and sneezing
  • Thoroughly cooking meat and eggs
  • Avoiding contact with anyone who is showing symptoms of respiratory illness like coughing and sneezing.

What are the measures taken by the Chinese government to contain the outbreak?

1000-bed hospital:

  • China’s Wuhan City, the capital of Hubei, is building a 1,000-bed hospital in 6 days to deal with the nCoV outbreak.
  • The second hospital with 1,300-bed capacity is also going to be built over two weeks.
  • The target date for the completion of the first hospital is February 3, 2020.
  • These hospitals will act as both quarantine and treatment centre reserved for people who are infected with the coronavirus.

Testing of drugs:

  • China’s National Health Commission is going to use a combination of lopinavir and ritonavir, sold under the brand name Kaletra by AbbVie, to treat those infected by 2019-nCoV. This drug is used to treat HIV patients who are suffering from pneumonia.
  • The National Health Commission had suggested Aluvia (Kaletra), a pill consisting of lopinavir and ritonavir, as of the two possible treatments for the symptoms of the virus. The other part is nebulized alpha-interferon.

Extension of holidays:

  • The government, to contain the epidemic, is extending Lunar New Year holidays.
  • The Lunar New Year Holidays is the most important annual holiday in China, a time when people travel across the country and abroad to visit their families.
  • The extension of the holiday may stop people from travelling to return to work.

How is India handling the situation?

  • India is going to airlift its citizens from Wuhan. After the evacuation, the individuals will be kept in quarantine for 14 days.
  • The government has extended the thermal screening to 20 airports, along with adding 10 new laboratories to test the virus, as a precautionary measure.
  • The government had also activated new laboratories – the Indian Council of Medical Research’s viral research and diagnostics lab network – to test the samples.
  • As of now, all the samples that were tested in India were found to be negative.
  • Also, Mumbai Port Trust has been instructed to not to give any shore permit to any vessel coming from China.
  • The government has also urged the passengers who have a travel history to China since 1st January to come forward for self-reporting at the nearest health facility if they experience any symptoms like fever, cough, respiratory distress etc.
  • A 24×7-helpline number has also been issued for the query on coronavirus.

Were there previous outbreaks of coronavirus?

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

  • It is a viral respiratory disease of zoonotic origin caused by the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV).
  • Between November 2002 and July 2003, an outbreak of SARS in southern China caused eventual 8,098 cases and 774 deaths in 17 countries, the majority in China.
  • No cases of SARS have been reported globally since 2004.
  • The viral outbreak was genetically traced to a colony of cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in China’s Yunnan Province.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS):

  • Also known as camel flu, MERS is a viral respiratory infection caused by the MERS-coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
  • The mortality is about one-third of diagnosed cases.
  • MERS-CoV is a betacoronavirus derived from bats. Camels have shown to have antibodies to MERS-CoV but the exact source of infection in camels has not been identified.

What is the WHO’s stand on the 2019-nCoV outbreak?

  • The World Health Organisation had recently decided not to declare the outbreak of 2019-nCoV as PHEIC – Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
  • Though was criticised by the global community, this is not the first time the WHO has been reluctant to declare a PHEIC.
  • A PHEIC is a technical term for “serious, unusual or unexpected” health crisis that poses a public health risk to other countries through the international spread and potentially requires an immediate coordinated international response.
  • Declaring a PHEIC expands WHO’s authority to coordinate that response in various ways, including by issuing recommendations on whether countries should impose trade and travel restrictions.
  • Previously, in 2019, the WHO repeatedly decided not to declare the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo a PHEIC before ultimately doing so.
  • The reluctance of WHO to declare PHEIC is due to its unwillingness to indulge in politics.
  • WHO can declare PHEIC after WHO director-general consults with an Emergency Committee of independent scientific experts, as well as the countries affected by the outbreak. The final decision rests solely on the director general’s shoulders.
  • Though the recommendations of the Emergency Committee is the voice of technical expertise, heeding it gives the director-general a cover to take action that might be unpopular with the governments, leading it to become a political move.

What are the challenges faced while dealing with the outbreak?

  • Shutting down of cities like Wuhan (11 million inhabitants) cannot prevent human-to-human transmission within the cities. The closing down of the entire cities goes far beyond the normal practice of quarantining the infected population and this might lead to other repercussions.
  • The WHO is fearing political impact if it declares the outbreak as PHEIC. This can only further the epidemic. Declaring the epidemic as PHEIC can prevent additional impact on the global population and economy.
  • The economic impacts of this outbreak include loss for the aviation sector, the tourism industry, as well as negative impacts on other sectors.

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Conclusion

Increasing the pace and resource mobilisation for researching and analysing the cause of the infection and creating new drugs to curb the spreading of the novel virus is a need of the hour. This can be more efficiently done with coordinated efforts of the international community sans politics.

Test yourself

WHO not declaring PHEIC, can only worsen the spreading of the 2019-nCoV infection across the globe. Comment. (250 Words)

Updates:

  • The WHO has named the 2019-nCoV as “COVID-19”.
  • On 30th January 2020, the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a global emergency as the death toll and the number of cases in China increased.
  • On 9th February, the death toll in China surpassed that of the 2002-03 SARS epidemic.
  • Until now, coronavirus cases have spread across to nearly 50 countries, with over 80,000 reported cases.
  • However, in India, apart from the three cases in Kerala, there have been no reports of fresh coronavirus cases. This may be because of large-scale screening of tourists, a robust quarantine system and messages to increase awareness about the virus.



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