Science

Coronavirus, questions and answers to the most common doubts

The epidemic continues to advance, but there is no need to panic. And the best antidote is knowledge: here are some essential answers to the most common questions about the new Chinese virus

coronavirus
(photo: Aidan Marzo / Sopa Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Chinese driven out by buses in Turin. Invited not to go to the exams at the University of Florence. Attacked in Venice, kept away from the bars of the capital. The new epidemic of coronavirus is bringing the worst out of our fellow citizens. And if in part it is the spy of old vices of an Italy that obviously still has fear and prejudices towards the foreigner, so much confusion also contributes to the nascent psychosis. Lack of clear information on the causes , the risks , the methods of diffusion of new virus. Information that research is frantically gathering, in an effort that for now provides an increasingly clear, but still evolving identikit. Let's see together some of the most common questions and the answers that science can provide.

Coronavirus: what are we talking about?

I coronavirus are a large family of viruses at rna which infect both humans and animals. The name comes from their appearance: they are in fact characterized by a crest of protein that surrounds the entire outer membrane of the virus, which someone in the past evidently must have thought was similar to a crown. In humans they can cause various serious pathologies, almost always to the detriment of the respiratory tract : in the past they have already frightened with the Mers , or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, caused by a coronavirus first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and the Sars , Severe acute respiratory syndrome, which caused an epidemic in 2002 which broke out in the province of Guangzhou, China. For now the new coronavirus is still identified with a simple abbreviation: 2019 – 2019 – nCoV , or new coronavirus from 2019, to indicate that it is a pathogen identified for the first time at the end of the last year.

coronavirus
(image: Cdc / Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number # 23312)

While waiting for an acronym of its own, what can be said about the new virus is that it causes symptoms very similar to those of its predecessors: fever , cough and problems with respiratory tract. Like Mers and Sars, the new Chinese coronavirus can also cause pneumonia which in turn can be fatal. To date, however, the infection still seems less serious than its predecessors.

Virus comparison: how lethal is the Chinese epidemic?

Unfortunately to make a comparison between epidemics not it's easy. The numbers in fact necessarily contain a bias : not all infections are intercepted by health systems, and therefore speak of mortality for a given virus makes little sense, since the total patient population is unknown and therefore it is impossible to be sure of the percentage of infected who die from the virus. In particular, for a disease that can have symptoms mild and similar to those of a common flu , the very concrete risk is that only the cases serious tend to be intercepted, and therefore the mortality of the virus is very exaggerated in the statistics.

At the same time, the opposite can also happen: statistics on the lethality rate of the disease (the number of deaths divided by the number of cases) that have circulated in recent days could in fact underestimate the dangers strongly. These calculations should always be made at the end of a epidemic , because at any given moment it is impossible to establish how many of the patients sick but still alive are destined to die, and the figures can therefore change considerably based on the time span taken into consideration.

As we have told you, the currently available numbers speak of a lethality rate equal to a little more than 2% , that is, of a slightly mild disease, if compared to the Mers , with his 34, 4% , and at Sars , which reached a fearful 9.6% . However, it will be necessary to wait for the end of the epidemic for a concrete estimate, also because even if the new virus was confirmed less lethal, however it is showing a much higher infectivity, with more 20 thousand cases confirmed to date against 2. 400 of the Mers and the 8 thousand of the SARS . Even milder, therefore, could cause a much higher number of deaths before the end of the epidemic.

In any case, there is no need to panic: according to information released by the WHO and other international agencies, the individual risks in case of infection are very low , and the dangers concentrated mainly in the classics populations at risk : elderly people and people weakened by other health problems, towards whom prevention efforts will be concentrated.

(photo: Keith Tsuji / Sopa Images / LightRocket / Getty Images)

How does the virus spread?

2019 – nCoV is a respiratory virus , and how the flu is mainly transmitted through contact with droplets of saliva or mucus produced by coughing and sneezing an infected person. As the WHO points out, a little healthy respiratory hygiene : when we find ourselves in coughing or sneeze we must try to do it within a elbow folded or a tissue (to be thrown away immediately) to avoid spreading mucus and saliva or contaminating our hands, with which we could then easily transmit the virus onto objects that could then be touched by other people (here you find a point on the masks, however, that would not be as useful as we think).

Healthy and sick people should then try to wash themselves as often as possible the hands , to minimize the chances of involuntary transmission. Products and foods therefore they cannot transmit the disease for themselves, unless they have been contaminated quite recently from a patient: preliminary data seem to indicate that the virus can survive just a few hours outside of a guest. It is therefore useless to be afraid of goods and products from China , unless they have recently been manipulated by a person potentially at risk, that is, coming into contact with someone from the areas where the epidemic is active. So a parcel coming from risk areas should not represent a danger.

How long is the incubation time?

Again it is early for a definitive answer. The data collected seem to indicate that the disease can become symptomatic after an interval of approximately 2-11 days from the moment of infection. But based on the knowledge available on Mers and Sars the incubation period could also be plus along , and reach the two weeks. It is also unclear whether patients are contagious during this time.

Initially, a German study indicated the possibility that the disease was also transmissible by patients asymptomatic . A nice risk, because it would make it extremely difficult to set up a truly effective quarantine system. The study, however, was later retracted by its authors, because it was discovered that the patient on which the research was based, although not actually presenting evident respiratory symptoms, had nevertheless experienced malaise and fever before transmitting the virus. According to the WHO it is currently impossible to exclude entirely the possibility of infection during the incubation period disease or asymptomatic patients. But the risk, even if present, would still seem extremely content.

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(photo: Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

How is it treated?

Unfortunately, there are no effective therapies for the treatment of infections 2019 – nCoV , and hardly we will see it coming soon. Patients must be hospitalized in equipped facilities, where doctors will follow the course of the disease and will help them if necessary with supportive therapies . Waiting for news from the research, what emphasizes the WHO are the interventions that do not prove useful neither for prevention or treatment of the disease. And indeed, they could even be harmful: smoking , drink tea and herbal teas with alleged properties curative , wear more than one mask at a time in the hope that it will increase protection, rely on DIY pharmacological tea, in particular with antibiotics , absolutely useless against viral infections.

How to do prevention?

Let's be clear: at the moment in Italy the risks of an epidemic are still limited. But if ever the virus will start to circulate also on the Italian territory, how minimize the risks of contracting the illness? The masks seem an obvious answer, but this is not the case. They can be partially useful when used correctly, but are mainly designed to reduce the risk of infecting others when you have the disease, and as a form of prevention for healthy individuals they are much less effective.

What to do then? In the meantime, let's start by avoiding worrying excessively: for healthy people, the virus does not seem particularly dangerous. In case of spread of the virus also on the Italian territory, elderly and people in risk should avoid places public and overly frequented, and if possible carry out the vaccination flu (always recommended, and free of charge, in this age group) to prevent the body from being weakened also from seasonal influence, and to decongest hospital wards as much as possible. For the rest, we will all have to pay attention to wash our hands often , and try to stay in good health to help our immune system fight an infection.

What should I do if I get a cough or a fever?

The correct answer is probably: nothing different from the usual, at least for now. As the latest update of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità points out, at the moment the scientific data say that the new coronavirus does not it circulates in Italy, and it is therefore impossible (or rather, extremely difficult) to contract it on Italian soil. To realistically suspect that you have contracted the disease, you must have traveled in the last 14 days in areas of China where the virus is spreading, or having had contact with people with known infection.

Can analyzes be carried out privately to ascertain possible contagion?

No. There are currently no commercial kits to confirm the diagnosis of new coronavirus infection. The diagnosis must be made in the reference laboratories and must then be confirmed by the Higher Institute of Health. Those who have traveled to areas of China where the virus is circulating or have had contact with people where the infection has been identified can contact the telephone number 1500, made available to citizens by the Ministry of Health, to receive information on how to behave. In the absence of symptoms of a certain severity and risk factors, however, there is currently no diagnostic procedure for the coronavirus.

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