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What is the coronavirus outbreak?

The coronavirus outbreak that began in 2019 surprised the world and raised many questions.

The 2019 coronavirus outbreak refers to a disease caused by a new type of coronavirus that was first reported in humans in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The virus proved able to spread quickly; according to the World Health Organization (WHO), by February 16, 2020, just two months after the first reported case, there were over 50,000 laboratory confirmed cases and more than 1,600 deaths. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared that the spread of the coronavirus across more than 100 countries made it a global pandemic. As of that same date more than 120,000 cases of COVID-19 (short for coronavirus disease 2019) and more than 4,300 associated deaths were reported worldwide.

How was the outbreak identified?

In early December 2019, several patients in Wuhan hospitals were identified as having “pneumonia of unknown etiology.” In the early days of January 2020, a cluster of 44 more patients with “pneumonia of unknown etiology" were reported, which quickly classified the unknown pathogen as a potential emerging outbreak or epidemic.

When the outbreak or epidemic spreads to multiple countries or continents, it becomes a pandemic.

By January 30, the WHO had declared the novel coronavirus to be a “public health emergency of international concern,” signaling the need for the international community to show solidarity with China and be ready to assist in the response efforts. Although the novel coronavirus outbreak didn’t garner global attention until early 2020, it has its roots in the end of 2019, hence the name given to the disease caused by this new virus: COVID-19.

What pathogen is causing the outbreak?

In early January 2020, the presumed causative agent of the emerging outbreak was isolated and identified as a coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a family of enveloped viruses with a positive-strand RNA genome.

Where did SARS-CoV-2 come from?

In the case of the novel coronavirus, it seems that the first patients began experiencing symptoms in early December 2019. However, it is possible that others were infected earlier than this but were asymptomatic . This compounds the difficulty of identifying not only the original case of COVID-19, but also subsequent infections, as evidence suggests that people with coronavirus may be infectious to others before they have even begun to feel sick.

How dangerous is SARS-CoV-2?

During the initial phase of the outbreak in January 2020, the epidemic doubled roughly every week and the basic reproduction number (R0) was calculated to be approximately 2.2. This means that for every person infected with SARS-CoV-2, an average of 4 to 7 additional people will become infected.

What can be done to keep viral outbreaks from spreading?

Chinese health authorities shared the gene sequence of SARS-CoV-2 with other countries as soon as it became available in early January to aid in the rapid development of diagnostic lab kits. These kits make it faster to accurately diagnose infection with SARS-CoV-2 using a technique called PCR, which uses selective DNA primers to amplify viral DNA if it is present in the sample.

Public health officials also strive to minimize further viral spread by encouraging individuals to engage in certain protective behaviors. The WHO recommends that individuals help minimize the spread of SARS-CoV-2 by washing hands frequently and practicing cough and sneeze etiquette by coughing or sneezing into the elbow and disposing of used tissues.

Larger-scale responses that can be used to control viral outbreaks include surveillance screening at border crossings or points of entry, quarantine for travelers from areas with known infections and, in some cases, imposing travel restrictions.