What You Should Know About the Coronavirus Outbreak

coronavirus micrograph
coronavirus micrograph
What do we know – and not know – about the Wuhan coronavirus?

To date, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed 5 cases of 2019-nCoV, a novel coronavirus colloquially known as “Wuhan coronavirus” after the city in China’s Hubei province from where it was first identified.1 What do we know – and not know – about the disease so far?

What Is the Novel Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a common cause of colds and other upper respiratory infections. These viruses are found in different species of animals and in some cases can evolve to infect and spread among humans.2

In December 2019, health officials in China reported an outbreak of respiratory illness in Wuhan. Initially, many of the people affected had a link to an animal market, suggesting that the disease spread from animal to human. It was later found that numerous patients confirmed to have the disease had not been exposed to animal markets, suggesting that the disease can also be transmitted between people.3

What Are the Symptoms of Wuhan Coronavirus?

Generally, the virus is characterized by mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath.3 There have also been reports of nonrespiratory symptoms including diarrhea and vomiting.2 Symptoms can surface in as few as 2 days or as many as 2 weeks after exposure.3

Who Is At Risk?

Many patients recover from 2019-nCoV in as little as a few days, while others – such as the young, elderly, and those with a weakened immune system – are more prone to serious infection.2 Those who have died from the illness tended to have underlying health conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. However, there’s still much to be discovered about the origins, clinical features, and severity of the virus.4

How Widespread Is the Virus?

As of the time of this writing, health officials in China have confirmed nearly 6000 cases of 2019-nCoV. They have announced 132 deaths as a result of the virus – a number that has been steadily rising.4 Due to its rapid spread throughout the country, Chinese authorities have imposed an unprecedented lockdown on travel affecting more than a dozen cities with a combined population upward of 50 million.5

Some experts have suggested that the actual tally in Wuhan may be as many as 30 times larger than the official number reported.4 In the United States, the CDC expects more cases to be identified in the coming days. “Given what has occurred previously with MERS and SARS, it’s likely that person-to-person spread will occur, including in the United States,” the agency cautioned.6

Is There a Vaccine Available?

Presently, there is no vaccine for 2019-nCoV. Scientists are working at breakneck speed to create one, however. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has vowed to provide 3 companies a total of $12.5 million to develop a vaccine. These efforts began after researchers in China posted a sequence of 2019-nCoV in a public database. However, “even when experimental vaccines work in clinical trials, mass producing them quickly is inevitably a huge challenge,” noted Jon Cohen in his column for Science Magazine.7

Related Articles

How Can the Disease Be Prevented?

In the absence of a vaccine, the CDC says the best way to prevent infection and spread of respiratory viruses is to avoid exposure to the virus and take precautionary actions8:

  • Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Keep a distance from people who are sick
  • Stay home if you’re sick
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then dispose of the tissue in the trash
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces

How Concerned Should You Be?

Some clinicians contend that the novel coronavirus is not something you should worry about on a personal level. “Unless you’ve been in close contact with someone who has the coronavirus – which right now, typically means a traveler from Wuhan, China who actually has the virus – you’re likely to be safe,” said Todd Ellerin, MD, director of infectious diseases and vice chairman of the department of medicine at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in a Harvard Health essay. “We should not panic, even though we are dealing with a serious and novel pathogen.”2

In an article for Slate, Tracey Goldstein, PhD, professor of pathology, immunology, and microbiology at the University of California, Davis, added: “The important thing to remember is that while there are a lot of cases, a lot of them are not severe. I’m not worried right now about my personal risk.”9

It is, however, worth thinking about global health. “I think that our first concern can rightly be the people in China,” said Simon Anthony, an epidemiologist at Columbia. The speed at which the virus is spreading and the constant, albeit necessary, news coverage of this global health story may fuel the feeling of panic. “I’m certainly more concerned now than I was a week ago,” Anthony commented.9


  1. 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in the US. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed January 27, 2020. Accessed January 29, 2020.
  2. Ellerin T. The new coronavirus: what we do – and don’t – know. Harvard Health. January 25, 2020. Accessed January 29, 2020.
  3. About 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed January 28, 2020. Accessed January 29, 2020.
  4. Mansoor S. Wuhan coronavirus infections have now surpassed the official number of SARS cases in China. Time. Updated January 28, 2020. Accessed January 29, 2020.
  5. Dhillon RS. What will it take to stop coronavirus? Harvard Business Review. January 28, 2020. Accessed January 29, 2020.
  6. 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), Wuhan, China. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed January 28, 2020. Accessed January 29, 2020.
  7. Cohen J. Scientists are moving at record speed to create new coronavirus vaccines – but they may come too late. Science Magazine. January 27, 2020. Accessed January 29, 2020.
  8. 2019 novel coronavirus, Wuhan, China: prevention & treatment. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed January 26, 2020. Accessed January 29, 2020.
  9. Palus S. How worried should you be about the new coronavirus? (Update: still not time to panic.) Slate. January 24, 2020. Accessed January 29, 2020.