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Coronaviruses are a family of viruses known for containing strains that cause potentially deadly diseases in mammals and birds. In humans they’re typically spread via airborne droplets of fluid produced by infected individuals.
Some rare but notable strains, including SARS-CoV-2 (responsible for COVID-19), and those responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), can cause death in humans.
First described in detail in the 1960s, the coronavirus gets its name from a distinctive corona or ‘crown’ of sugary-proteins that projects from the envelope surrounding the particle. Encoding the virus’s make-up is the longest genome of any RNA-based virus – a single strand of nucleic acid roughly 26,000 to 32,000 bases long.
There are four known genuses in the family, named Alphacoronavirus, Betacoronavirus, Gammacoronavirus, and Deltacoronavirus. The first two only infect mammals, including bats, pigs, cats, and humans. Gammacoronavirus mostly infects birds such as poultry, while Deltacoronavirus can infect both birds and mammals.
What are the symptoms of a coronavirus?
Coronaviruses can give rise to a variety of symptoms in different animals. While some strains cause diarrhoea in pigs and in turkeys, most of the time infections can be compared to a bad cold, causing mild to moderate upper respiratory problems such as a runny nose and sore throat.
There are a handful of lethal exceptions, which have had a devastating impact on livestock and human health around the globe.
SARS-CoV-2 was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in 2019. At the time of writing, numbers of infected are still on the rise, with a mortality rate of around 1 percent.
Snakes were originally suspected as a potential source for the outbreak, though other experts have deemed this unlikely and proposed bats instead. As of February 2020, the search for the animal origin of COVID-19 is ongoing.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-CoV)
SARS was first recognised as a distinct strain of coronavirus in 2003. The source of the virus has never been clear, though the first human infections can be traced back to the Chinese province of Guangdong in 2002.
The virus then became a pandemic, causing more than 8,000 infections of an influenza-like disease in 26 countries with close to 800 deaths.
Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV)
MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 in people displaying symptoms of fever, cough, shortness of breath and occasionally gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhoea. An animal source for the virus has never been officially confirmed, though evidence points to dromedary camels as a potential reservoir of infection.
The World Health Organisation has identified around 2,500 cases of infection in 27 countries since initial outbreaks, resulting in nearly 860 deaths.
Just like there are different types of related viruses that cause smallpox, chickenpox, and monkeypox, different coronaviruses cause different diseases in people. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus causes SARS and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus causes MERS. The novel coronavirus, COVID-19 is one of seven types of known human coronaviruses. COVID-19, like the MERS and SARS coronaviruses, likely evolved from a virus previously found in animals. The remaining known coronaviruses cause a significant percentage of colds in adults and children, and these are not a serious threat for otherwise healthy adults.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of COVID-19 infection?
Patients with confirmed COVID-19 infection have reportedly had mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
What Should I Do if I Think I Have Been Exposed to or Infected with COVID-19?
Alert your healthcare provider immediately if you think you may be infected with COVID-19, including if you have been exposed to someone with the virus and have signs/symptoms of infection. If you are experiencing symptoms, you should tell your healthcare provider about any recent travel to areas where COVID-19 is spreading.
If you believe you have been exposed on the job, alert your supervisor or occupational health clinic immediately.
Your healthcare provider can determine if your signs and symptoms are explained by other causes, or if there is reason to suspect you may have COVID-19. If laboratory testing is appropriate, your healthcare provider will work with health officials in your state, who in turn will work with CDC, to collect and test any clinical specimens for diagnosis.
The CDC’s Information for Laboratories webpage provides detailed information and interim guidelines for collecting, handling, and testing clinical specimens from patients under investigation and also provides laboratory biosafety guidelines for handling and processing specimens associated with COVID-19 infection.
How is COVID-19 Treated?
No vaccine or specific treatment for COVID-19 infection is available. Hospitals can provide supportive care for infected people.
The CDC COVID-19 Information for Healthcare Professionals webpage provides interim guidance for healthcare professionals, infection control, and home care for managing patients with known or suspected COVID-19.