by Lisa Short, International Keynote Presenter | Ambassador | Strategic Advisor 

What is coronavirus disease (COVID-19)?

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness in humans and many animals. These illnesses range from the very mild common cold to the more rare and sometimes severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) caused by the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS‐CoV), and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caused by SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV).

Coronaviruses under a microscope look spherical and appear to be surrounded by a spiky array thought to look like a ‘corona’, or crown-like shape, hence the name coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted from animals to people.  The transmission can be through direct or indirect contact, through vectors like fleas and ticks, and through food or waterborne pathways.  

Detailed investigations found that:

  • first infected humans in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002
  •  first infected humans in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

The primary host in both cases is believed to be bats.

Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animal reservoirs that have not yet infected humans. 

A novel (new) coronavirus (nCoV) not previously seen in humans was reported after an outbreak of a set of respiratory symptoms causing illness, particularly a pneumonia in a number of people in Wuhan, China in December 2019.  The new strain of coronavirus was formally identified on 7 January 2020 as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). It is genetically related to SARS-CoV that caused the SARS outbreak in 2012, but not the same.  

The source of the novel coronavirus is believed to be of a recent natural animal origin between mid to the end of November and December 2019. Scientific analysis showed that the backbone of the new coronavirus’s genome most closely resembles that of a bat coronavirus discovered after the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, the region in the genome that binds ACE2 resembles a novel virus found in pangolins, a strange-looking animal sometimes called a scaly anteater.

Whilst NOT conclusive, the most likely scenario is that the new coronavirus evolved in its natural hosts, possibly bats or pangolins, its spike proteins then mutated to bind to molecules similar in structure to the human ACE2 protein, thereby enabling it to infect human cells. This scenario seems to fit other recent outbreaks of coronavirus-caused disease in humans, such as SARS and MERS.

On February 11, 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially named the disease caused by this novel coronavirus COVID-19. COVID is the abbreviation for coronavirus disease and the number 19 refers to the fact that the disease was detected in 2019. 

Since 13 January 2020 a test to detect the virus has been available.

On 11 March 2020 COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by WHO based on the objective assessment of global spread of disease across three different geographical regions at the same time. It does NOT mean that COVID-19 is more deadly – it is an acknowledgement of its global spread.

How is COVID-19 spread?

The virus can spread from person to person through:

  • close contact with an infectious person (including in the 24 hours before they started experiencing symptoms)
  • contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze
  • touching objects or surfaces (like doorknobs or tables) that have cough or sneeze droplets from an infected person, and then touching your mouth or face

COVID-19 is a new disease, so there is no existing immunity in our community. This means that COVID-19 could spread widely and quicklyAgain, this does not mean that COVID-19 is more deadly – it is an acknowledgement of the rate of speed and breadth of community spread. Good management of infection transmission means existing infrastructure and support services will not exceed capacity. 

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Symptoms can range from very mild illness to a serious illness.

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are:

  • Fever 
  • Sore throat 
  • Dry cough 
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

In more severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death. 

There have been a large number of cases that are asymptomatic who have reported a sudden and profound loss in the senses of smell and taste.