Coronavirus update

This article was last reviewed on March 2, 2020.

What is coronavirus?
The virus is a new coronavirus.  Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause a range of illnesses from the common cold to more serious diseases.  The most recent of these serious diseases were SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003 and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2012.

This new coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019. It has since spread to many countries.

Like previous coronavirus outbreaks, MERS and SARS, the new virus first spread from animals to humans and after some time was able to spread from human to human.

At the beginning of the outbreak, the Chinese government identified the unique genetic sequence of the virus and made it publicly available so that work could be started on developing vaccines and treatments.

Based on its genetic link to two bat-derived SARS-like coronaviruses, it is most likely that the new virus originated in chrysanthemum bats.   It is probable there has been another animal infected that made the link between bats and humans. Early data suggest this is the pangolin (a scaly anteater), an endangered and commonly trafficked mammal.[1]

What are SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19?

You may have read these terms in newspapers or online. These are the medical names that have been given to the virus and the disease that it causes. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has named the new disease COVID-19 and the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses has named the virus, SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).

What we know about it
Information about the virus and the disease it causes is being shared daily and international experts are beginning to better understand the way it presents, the way the virus works and the treatments that are proving most effective. However, many questions remain such as how the virus emerged, why it is more easily spread than previous coronavirus infections (SARS and MERS) and what the best targets are for new vaccines and treatments.

How is it spread?
Because this is a new virus and previously no-one has developed immunity, everyone is potentially susceptible to the infection.  It is spread through the tiny droplets made when someone coughs or sneezes. It can also be picked up by touching objects or surfaces (such as door-knobs or tables) that have been contaminated by the virus and then touching your mouth or face.
It appears to need close contact with someone who has the coronavirus when that person is infectious.
 This means:
  • you have had face-to-face contact for at least 15 minutes
  • you have been in a closed space for at least two hours 

How long does it take for symptoms to appear after infection?
People infected with the virus may have no symptoms at first but they can be infectious. The length of time it takes the virus to incubate has been estimated at anywhere between 1 and 14 days with a median of 5 to 6 days. There have been reports of longer incubation periods of up to 26 days.[2]

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
The most common symptoms include:
  • fever, chills
  • body aches
  • tiredness
  • sore throat, headache and runny nose
  • diarrhoea
Severe symptoms include pneumonia and difficulty breathing.
Who is most at risk?
The World Health Organisation has said that so far older people and people who already have medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease appear to be at more risk of developing severe disease. There have been more men admitted with the illness to hospitals in China than women.  Children appear to have lower risk and show only mild symptoms. Among people with confirmed COVID-19 in China, only 2.1% were below the age of 20. 

Is there a vaccine for the new coronavirus? 
There is no vaccine at the present time. Several international groups are working on vaccines but these will take many months.
What we are doing in Australia
The number of cases in Australia is still reasonably low but increasing. On February 27, on the advice of a panel of infectious disease and public health experts, the Prime Minister activated a State of Emergency to allow Australia to prepare for a pandemic.
The situation is changing quickly, and the Australian Department of Health continues to closely monitor the outbreak. For the most recent information, visit the Australian Department of Health or state health department websites. There are links at the end of this update.

How COVID-19 is tested
Testing for the virus is performed as a molecular test that looks for the virus’s genetic material in a sample taken from your nose or throat. You may also be asked to give a sputum sample. 
As well as the new virus, the lab may also perform a test for other respiratory viruses like the flu so these can be ruled out.

Blood samples may also be collected at the same time.  Some samples may be stored to look for antibodies to the virus if a test becomes available in the near future.
The Australian Department of Health has issued lab and biosafety guidelines for collecting, handling, and processing respiratory samples from patients with suspected infection.

Who is being tested?
Testing is recommended for people who have any symptoms and have travelled from or through a country considered to pose a risk of transmission in the 14 days before the onset of illness. (This does not apply to people who have only been in transit through an airport in a moderate risk country.)  The Australian Government’s Smart Traveller has continually updated information about those countries. It is also important to be tested if you have been in close contact with someone known to have the virus. If you have severe symptoms suggesting pneumonia, fever and breathing difficulties, or severe coughing episodes, you should go to hospital.
Travel and healthcare precautions
Australia has in place mechanisms for border control, isolation of people who are unwell, surveillance and case tracing. 

As of the beginning of March, the Australian Government has issued a do not travel for several regions of mainland China, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Mongolia.

There is also a moderate risk if you travel to Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. 
Foreign nationals (excluding permanent residents) who are in mainland China are not allowed to enter Australia until 14 days after they have left or transited through mainland China.

Foreign nationals (excluding permanent residents) leaving Iran on or after 1 March, are not allowed to enter Australia until 14 days after they have left or transited through Iran.

Australian citizens, permanent residents, and their immediate family (including spouses, dependants and legal guardians) are able to enter Australia but are required to self-isolate for 14 days after the date they left China or Iran.
If you are asked to self-isolate
If you have been identified as being at risk and asked to self-isolate, you must:
  • Isolate yourself at home until 14 days after you were last exposed to the infectious person. You should not leave the house, except for seeking medical care. You should stay in a different room to other people as much as possible, and wear a surgical mask when you are in the same room as another person and when seeking medical care. Use a separate bathroom if available. Do not go to work, school, or public areas, and do not use public transportation or taxi services.
  • Watch for signs and symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath.  Other early symptoms to watch for are chills, body aches, sore throat, headache and runny nose, muscle pain or diarrhoea

More information:
Australian Government Dept. of Health Coronavirus updates

WHO coronavirus information (including video)

WHO Q&A about coronavirus
[1]   COVID-19—New Insights on a Rapidly Changing Epidemic; Carlos del Rio, MD1Preeti N. Malani, MD, MSJ2,3 JAMA. Published online February 28, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.3072
[2]  COVID-19—New Insights on a Rapidly Changing Epidemic; Carlos del Rio, MD1Preeti N. Malani, MD, MSJ2,3 JAMA. Published online February 28, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.3072

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