A Doctor Explains The Main Way Coronavirus Likely Spreads

In December 2019, a new coronavirus was found in Wuhan, China and since its discovery, it’s spread to at least a dozen other countries, affected more than 4,000 people, and taken at least 106 lives. Experts have predicted in the past that this type of virus could cause the next pandemic, and though it hasn’t reached pandemic proportions, the coronavirus is continuing to spread. While the immediate health risk remains low in the United States, understanding how to protect yourself is always a good plan.

The Wuhan coronavirus seems docile on the surface, causing common cold and fever-like symptoms including coughing, headaches, and a runny nose. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these symptoms can evolve into a respiratory illness accompanied by shortness of breath. And if someone affected with the virus has a particularly weak immune system, these issues can escalate to pneumonia or kidney failure, and even lead to death.

"There had to have been actually an animal to human event at some point in this virus’ history, however, what’s occurring now is primarily the result of transmission between people," Dr. Amesh Adalja, M.D., FIDSA, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, tells Bustle. "The virus is likely spreading from person to person in respiratory droplets."

Respiratory droplets are formed when someone coughs or sneezes, and are often the reason infections and viruses spread so quickly from person to person. As of right now, respiratory droplets are considered the main way the coronavirus is spreading, according to the CDC. This is why it stresses taking extra precaution with your hygiene. The CDC suggests a few preventative tips, including washing your hands with soap for more than 20 seconds, covering coughs, sneezing into tissues, and avoiding close contact with anyone who may be sick.

But despite these preventative measures, it can still be difficult to avoid catching the coronavirus from someone who may be infected. This is because it seems to spread to others even before symptoms appear. According to BBC, Chinese officials believe that the coronavirus has an incubation period of one to 14 days, during which a person may have the virus but show no symptoms. This makes it challenging to detect the virus and therefore harder to steer clear of it.

Despite the rapid increase in coronavirus cases and difficulty identifying the virus, Adalja says that it may not be as much of an immediate threat to everyone as the media suggests. "It depends on where you’re located," he says. "Obviously if you’re in China, this is a major crisis right now." But, he doesn’t think the Wuhan virus poses a major risk to those in other places like the United States. The CDC has confirmed this, stating that based on currently available information, the immediate health risk from the coronavirus to the American public is low.

"Right now we have five cases in the United States," Adalja says. "All of [them are] hospitalized and there has been no secondary transmission in the United States. There’s been no sustained transmission outside of China. There also have been no deaths outside of China, so that’s all reassuring." But this doesn’t necessarily mean the situation is 100% under control. Adalja says that it’s still early on and that health experts can’t know just yet how the situation will pan out.

"I think the biggest question will be what the ratio of mild cases is to severe cases," Adalja tells Bustle. "That will really be key to how we deal with this virus coming in the future."


Dr. Amesh Adalja, M.D., FIDSA, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security

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If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and coughing, call NHS 111 in the UK or visit the CDC website in the U.S. for up-to-date information and resources. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.

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