The virus has so far killed 17 people and sickened hundreds more, and it’s spreading rapidly. Cases now stretch from China to Thailand and, more recently, the United States. Canada has no confirmed cases as of Jan. 23.
The central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have emerged from, was placed on lockdown this week in an effort to suppress the outbreak.
The mysterious lung virus is part of a large family of coronaviruses with a wide range of severity — from deadly strains like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrom (MERS) to the simple common cold.
Runny nose, headache, cough and fever are all symptoms of this new coronavirus strain but they’re also common symptoms of influenza.
Part of the difficulty in weeding out mild cases of coronavirus is its similarities with the flu, said Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
“We’re in the middle of influenza season. So when you get those symptoms, it’s most likely to be influenza, but it could be one of a couple hundred other viruses.”
“Every respiratory virus is the same — you get a runny nose, a stuffy nose, a cough, sometimes a sore throat, all because the lining of your nose and throat are damaged. The symptoms are caused by that virus or bacteria damaging the cells of your respiratory tract. It doesn’t matter what virus is causing it.”
Things like shortness of breath, chills and body aches are linked with more dangerous kinds of coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In extremely serious cases — especially in those with weakened immune systems — the virus can cause pneumonia, bronchitis, kidney failure and death.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said that, so far, most of those who have died from the virus had “underlying health conditions,” such as hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular diseases, which weakened their immune systems. Of the reported cases, one quarter experienced severe disease symptoms.
But symptoms of milder coronavirus cases can be “somewhat indistinguishable” from the flu, said Eleanor Fish, an immunology professor at the University of Toronto.
She echoed the WHO in saying that there’s still so much that’s not known about the virus, including how easily it spreads or its an understanding of its full severity.
“Since the data, so far, is from patients who show up in hospitals (severely ill), it’s not yet clear whether their symptoms are the same as those who are infected with a milder case of the disease,” Fish said.
A diagnostic test is available to detect the bug quickly — a sharp contrast to the 2002-03 SARS outbreak where there was no similar test readily available.
However, there is no vaccine to prevent an infection from this virus. Because of that, people who become infected are quarantined in hospitals or homes to prevent it from spreading.
There are research teams working on developing a potential vaccine, according to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, but the clinical trials likely won’t happen until June.
As of Thursday, WHO said that it’s “too early” to declare the virus a global health emergency.
So how can people differentiate flu-like symptoms from a more severe infection, of coronavirus or otherwise?
At this point, recent travel history plays a big role in proper diagnoses.
Cases can be ruled out fairly quickly if patients don’t meet two key case definitions: flu-like symptoms and travel to Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the outbreak.
According to an early clinical study from The Lancet, which analyzed the first 41 patients in Wuhan, 66 per cent of those infected had visited the seafood market in recent weeks.
“You can predict through air travel where the virus is likely to go,” McGeer said. “That, of course, depends on what city it starts in. With SARS it was Guangdong Province, with MERS it was Saudi Arabia. So those result in different patterns. … That’s not the only way viruses move, but it’s a big one.”
For Canada — where there are no confirmed cases thus far — Fish said anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms are likely to be just that, but it’s not up to you to diagnose.
“If your symptoms are severe, go to the hospital,” she said. “That’s where they will screen for the flu and coronavirus.”
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press