March 02, 2020

As updates continue rolling in about the growing number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, Hampden-Sydney gets the facts about the disease from virology expert and Elliott Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Kristian Hargadon ’01.

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses belong to a family of RNA viruses first described in the 1960s. The name is derived from the Latin word for crown—corona. These viruses have a shared structural feature of a “crown” of proteins on their surface.

Is COVID-19 more serious than the flu or just more novel to us?

To date, the COVID-19 virus has a significantly higher mortality rate than seasonal influenza. However, because influenza spreads more efficiently at this time, the total number of deaths from seasonal influenza is significantly higher than that of COVID-19.

How is COVID-19 transmitted? What happens once a person is infected?

The most common route of transmission for coronaviruses is airborne via close personal contact with an infected individual­ such as coughing and sneezing. Direct contact with virus particles on inanimate objects has also been reported. Contamination via the fecal-oral route, such as from contaminated food or hand to mouth contact following improper handwashing, is rare but possible. Symptoms present between two and 14 days post-infection according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

What are the primary symptoms of COVID-19?

In most cases, symptoms remain mild and include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.  However, there is potential for more serious symptoms such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome, both of which may lead to death.

Can this outbreak be compared to other outbreaks such as SARS, H1N1, or MERS? How so? What makes it different?

COVID-19, SARS, and MERS are all coronaviruses that began by circulating among animals and then acquired one or more mutations that enabled them to “jump” to humans. SARS and MERS proved to be highly lethal when they “jumped,” but they never adapted well for person-to-person transmission, so they did not lead to a high number of total cases.

COVID-19 is genetically very similar to SARS, which broke out in 2002 and 2003. The mortality rate of SARS was significantly higher, around 10 percent, but SARS did not infect as many people as COVID-19 has. Because of that, the total number of deaths from the COVID-19 infection has already surpassed that of SARS. The same is true when COVID-19 is compared to the highly lethal MERS coronavirus, which has killed approximately 34 percent of its victims since it was first discovered in 2012, but spreads much less efficiently than COVID-19. 

COVID-19, while less lethal than SARS and MERS, has mutated in a way that allows for better person-to-person spread, leading to the high number of cases that have been reported in just over two months. For example, SARS topped out at just over 8,000 cases in the 2003 outbreak. According to the CDC, there are already more than 81,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide.

H1N1 Swine Flu had a lower mortality rate than seasonal flu, but it spread so efficiently that a very large number of deaths were still attributed to the outbreak. 

What do people need to look for as the outbreak continues to develop? Is it wise to stay abreast of media coverage or are there better outlets for getting information?

With the rate at which COVID-19 is spreading and the confirmation of positive cases in 37 countries at the time of this writing, there are certainly concerns about the potential for a pandemic, though one has not officially been declared by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Based on the fact that in recent days the number of new cases being reported outside of China is higher than the number of new cases being reported in China, it is worthwhile to track the spread of COVID-19. In addition to following local and national news reports, daily updates are provided on the WHO and CDC websites.

How can people protect themselves against COVID-19?

The CDC recommends a number of measures to minimize risk of COVID-19 infection. These include a Level Three Warning to avoid non-essential travel to China, Italy, South Korea, and Iran (as of 3/2/2020). In addition to these travel recommendations, the CDC offers recommendations for prevention and treatment of COVID-19.

Recommendations for Prevention of COVID-19 (Centers for Disease Control)

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
    • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
  • CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
  • Facemasks should be used by health workers and people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others.
  • Follow and monitor CDC Travel Advisories.

For updates and current information about COVID-19 in regards to the Hampden-Sydney community, please visit the Emergency Updates page.