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What are coronaviruses?

Dr Philip Veal, a Medichecks reporting doctor and a consultant in Public Health, provides useful and reassuring advice on the virus which has been hitting headlines recently.

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses were first identified by scientists in the 1960s and infections occur in both humans and animals. A coronavirus infection is an unpleasant but short-lived illness for the majority of people. Typical symptoms can include a sore throat, cough, fever, blocked or runny nose, sneezing and muscle aches. Many cases of the common cold in the UK are due to coronaviruses. In most cases, the body will fight off the infection within about seven days.

A very small number of those infected can develop complications such as viral pneumonia (chest infection). Complications are most likely in people with weakened immune systems, older people, and those with long term conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease.

Since 2002, two new coronaviruses infecting animals have evolved and caused outbreaks in humans: SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. These were more unusual as they caused more serious illness for some people. For example, SARS-CoV infected over 8,000 people and 10% of those infected died.

In recent weeks a new seventh strain of coronavirus has emerged in Wuhan, China. This is known as 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). It is suspected that this virus originated in an animal and has evolved to infect humans. As of 26 January over 24,597 cases have been identified with 494 deaths. The majority of cases, however, have experienced a milder illness. Those who have died appear to have had pre-existing medical conditions.

Public Health bodies in the UK are monitoring the situation closely to understand more about the illness, assess the risk to the UK and prepare UK health services should the infection occur in the UK. Currently, the risk to the UK from this new virus is assessed as low.


How do you catch this new strain of coronavirus?

At present, it is not yet clear how easily or sustainably the new virus is spreading between people. Some cases among families and health care workers have been reported which suggests that spread from one person to another is possible however the level of infectivity has not yet been determined. This will be one of the key questions that public health bodies will be seeking to answer over the coming weeks.

Other established strains of coronavirus spread through respiratory droplets. This means they can spread from an infected person to another person through coughs or sneezes, or items contaminated with the virus (such as hands or handkerchiefs). The spread of infection tends to happen to those in closest contact with the infected – typically people living in the same household.


How can I prevent catching 2019 novel coronavirus?

There is currently no vaccination against 2019-nCoV. Antibiotics are not effective because the infection is due to a virus.

The most effective way to avoid infection is to prevent being exposed to the virus. This can be achieved by avoiding travel to areas where the outbreak is focused. Before travel, the UK government travel advice website should be checked for up to date travel recommendations

It is also worth practising good hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene. These simple steps have been shown to be effective at preventing people from catching all types of respiratory infections such as influenza and the common cold.

These are:

  • Frequent hand washing throughout the day. As a minimum after using the toilet; after coughing or sneezing; before preparing food; before eating food; when hands are visibly dirty; and after contact with someone who is sick.
  • When coughing or sneezing do this into a tissue, then immediately dispose of it in a bin, then wash your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with someone who has a cough, fever or flu-like symptoms.

What should I do if I think I have the new coronavirus?

If you have not travelled to China in the previous 14 days it is very unlikely that you have 2019-nCoV. Your symptoms are much more likely to be due to one of the other respiratory viruses such as flu that circulate in the UK during Winter.

If you have visited mainland China within the previous 14 days and develop a fever, difficulty breathing or cough, you should seek medical attention. Stay indoors and avoid contact with other people as much as possible. Call ring NHS 111 for England, Scotland, Wales or 0300 200 7885 if you live in Northern Ireland informing them of your symptoms. Travellers who have recently returned from China are being encouraged to phone this for advice. The line is open to anyone in the UK to seek advice or ask a specific question. Arrangements for further testing and monitoring will be made. If you are very unwell and need to contact an emergency ambulance advise them of your symptoms and recent travel to China.

It is very important not to turn up at your GP surgery, or to attend an Emergency Department without contacting them first as this could lead to other people in the waiting area becoming infected.


Do we test for coronavirus at Medichecks? 


We do not currently offer a test for the Wuhan strain of Coronavirus because people who are concerned that they have been exposed should be seen and assessed by a doctor. Arranging a test prior to this would risk a delay in diagnosis, which could delay the treatment of people with the infection, and increase the risk of the virus being transmitted to others. If you are concerned that you may have been exposed to Wuhan Coronavirus then you should remain at home and telephone NHS 111 for England, Scotland, Wales or 0300 200 7885 if you live in Northern Ireland informing them of your symptoms.