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What’s so “novel” about coronavirus?

-by Dr. Alan Laird, Chief Medical Officer You have probably heard about the new virus that seems to have originated in China. My goal is to review some information not regularly covered in the news. What is a virus? A virus is a microscopic organism that typically lacks the ability to thrive (survive and multiply) outside a cell. Viruses can infect humans, animals, plants and even bacteria. A virus is much smaller than a bacterium. Unlike bacteria that cause infections in humans and live outside our cells but within our bodies; viruses live in our bodies and inside our cells. This is one of the reasons they do not respond to antibiotics. In fact, since viruses do not “live” outside cells they are not classified in either the plant or animal kingdom (the two big classifications scientists divide almost all living things into). In short, viruses are not made up of living cells, but need living cells to survive and reproduce. Why is it called a coronavirus? As we became better at “seeing” what viruses looked like under the electron microscope and analyzing what they were made up of, we started using a different way to name them. We refer to the scientific systematic naming of things as taxonomy. There are a lot of different viruses. According to a study published in 2013 in the journal American Society for Microbiology, there are approximately 320,000 types of viruses that infect mammals. That does not count other types of animals, plants or bacteria. This latest news-worthy virus falls into the family Cornidovirineae. That family is so named because of the spikes it has around its outside. Corona in Latin means “crown.” So think of the spikes on a crown. The family of coronaviruses is not new to humans. They usually cause a mild to moderate head cold. But sometimes these new ones give us more trouble. In 2012 MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), jumped from dromedary camels to humans and caused severe illness. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) jumped form civet cats to humans and caused problems in 2003. So why was it called “Novel Coronavirus?” Right now it is new. So the word “novel” was being used. The WHO (World Health Organization) has now officially named it COVID-19. So what does this new virus mean for us in the U.S.? I am not sure it means a lot yet. Of course we have concerns for our friends and relatives in China and other affected countries. And we should be checking people who have visited involved areas or with people who have the virus. So far we have not seen significant person to person spread in the U.S., except between household contacts of those who acquired the virus abroad. It has been educational to see how a new virus has entered the human population; and given how connected our world is, how quickly it has spread to remote sites around the world. According to the WHO website, as of February 24, there have been 79,331 confirmed cases worldwide; almost all of those have been in China (population 1.4 billion). There have been 2069 confirmed cases outside of China. There have been 2595 deaths from COVID-19 in China and 23 deaths outside China. And although the situation is still evolving, let’s compare that to influenza. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control) website, for the 2018–2019 flu season in the U.S. (population 327.2 million), there were 35.5 million people who got influenza and 34,200 deaths from influenza. So, influenza is still a lot more concerning than the COVID-19 for us here in the USA. It remains to be seen if COVID-19 is a new kid on the block that stays with us, or comes and goes like SARS did. In the meantime, remember what mom taught you, “Cover your coughs and sneezes, wash your hands and see a healthcare provider if you are sick.” And maybe, for now, avoid traveling to China. Or as Mary Politi, Professor and Health Psychologist at Washington University School of Medicine tweeted, “Roses are red, Violets are blue, Coronavirus in the U.S., Is not as scary as the flu.” That made me smile.