I’m moving away from my usual storytelling to bring you something more pressing. In my main line of work, I am in public health preparedness and I deal with all types of new and sometimes scary diseases. The world is currently buzzing because there’s a new virus in town and it doesn’t even have a name yet. Right now it’s called 2019-nCoV which stands for 2019 novel coronavirus.  New viruses are nothing, well, new. Even as recently as the 2010’s, we’ve had new viruses that have been discovered. Think HIV/AIDS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Pandemic Influenza H1N1 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV).

This will keep happening. Here’s what you need to know.

nCoV is a virus that was first discovered in Wuhan, China in late 2019. It causes respiratory illness and appears to spread person to person. If you want the latest information, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US have the most up-to-date information. Right now, we don’t know that much about the virus but we do have some information about the family of viruses called coronaviruses. According to the CDC (2020a), “Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface.” There are seven types that infect humans, including 2019-nCoV (CDC, 2020a).

“Current symptoms reported for patients with 2019-nCoV have included mild to severe respiratory illness with fever1, cough, and difficulty breathing. Read about 2019-nCoV Symptoms.” – CDC

Coronaviruses start out in animals such as camels and bats (CDC, 2020b). Through the evolution process, a virus can evolve to infect humans (CDC, 2020b). Thankfully, this is a rare event. Scientists are still trying to understand why some coronaviruses infect humans, while others have not.

Viruses can take on many different forms.

How do we get new viruses?

It seems like every time we turn around another virus has been discovered. According to Wasik et al. (2019), it happens because of factors such as easy transmission in an animal host and proximity of the animal host to humans. A good example of this is with avian influenza H5N1 virus. This virus has been jumping from birds to humans since the early 2000’s (Tsukamoto et al., 2007).  The reason for the jump is the proximity of birds to humans (WHO, n.d.). In Asia, many people keep their animals, birds included, in their homes (Gilbert et al., 2008). They also have live markets where a person can come into contact with live birds (Gilbert et al., 2008).

In any case, when a virus jumps to humans, it evolves a little to get better at becoming a virus that spreads between people. The better it gets, the more likely the virus goes from an animal disease to a human disease, also known as zoonotic. If you hear that a disease is zoonotic, that means it’s a disease that started out in animals and then became a human virus.

Now that I’ve talked about what’s going on right now in the world of viruses, let’s go back to basics and talk about how viruses make us sick in the first place. Essentially, a virus is made up of a capsid protein and genetic material, either DNA or RNA.

The virus attaches itself to a cell and forces that cell to use the virus’ genetic material make more viruses.

The replication cycle of influenza virus in a human cell.

Viruses spread in many ways. Sometimes they spread by droplets from coughs and sneezes. (This appears to be how the new coronavirus spreads.) Other times they only spread by touch or sexual transmission.

There are also some viruses that are spread by what are known as vectors. A vector can be any type of animal or insect. Mosquitoes are a common vector for many types of viral diseases such as West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis.  Knowing how a disease spreads is one way to understand how to stop it.

Another factor is something called an incubation period. An incubation period means how long from the time you are infected with a virus to the time when symptoms start showing up. It is easier to stop the spread of viruses that have shorter incubation periods, while it is more difficult to stop the spread of viruses with longer ones. Why is this? The longer a person can be infected with a virus without showing any symptoms, or showing few symptoms, is the longer they can unknowingly infect other people.

What can you do to prevent the spread of viruses?

The answer is pretty simple. Here are some things you need to do to prevent viral infections:

  • Stay away from people who are sick.
  • Stay home if you are sick.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands (CDC).
  • Get vaccinated when you can, such as for the flu, on a regular basis.

I hope this helps you understand this world of new viruses that keep popping up. Remember to practice the tips above to prevent the spread of viruses.

Illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), revealing morphology exhibited by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

Good reading on the new Coronavirus

“A coronavirus is a kind of virus with a spiky crown-like exterior that affects the respiratory tracts and guts in mammals. There are more than 3,000 species of coronavirus, but they are most commonly found in bats, as Goldstein and Anthony describe in a study in which they tested everything from humans to shrews. Just seven species (with the addition of this new virus) are known to affect humans. One of those is actually the cause of the common cold, to which the symptoms of coronavirus in many cases are similar, though complications of this new one can include pneumonia and sepsis.” – Slate