COVID-19 ∙ 5 minutes read

Everything you need to know about coronavirus (COVID-19)

By Dr Saskia Verhagen

Please note that there are daily, if not hourly, developments in the current advice regarding coronavirus (COVID-19). The information below was accurate at the time of writing. For the most up-to-date information, please consult NHS.uk, Public Health England and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause respiratory tract infections in humans. Most common coronaviruses cause mild symptoms; rarer forms can cause more serious infections. The name coronavirus is derived from the crown-like appearance of the virus under the electron microscope; corona means crown in Latin.

A novel (new) strain of coronavirus was identified in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China in January 2020 following a bout of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause. This virus is called SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) and the associated disease is called COVID-19. This form of coronavirus causes mild symptoms in most cases, but may also progress to pneumonia and respiratory failure. There have been several outbreaks of coronaviruses in the past which had high rates of mortality, including the SARS outbreak in 2003, and MERS in 2012.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms are fever, a dry cough and shortness of breath. Some people may also develop diarrhoea.

How is the coronavirus passed from person to person?

It appears that coronavirus is spread in two ways predominantly – via droplets in the air, and via contaminated surfaces.

How can I protect myself?

Keep in mind that you should be trying to prevent catching and spreading the virus, either by droplets in the air coming into contact with your nose and mouth, or by coming into contact with it via contaminated surfaces. The most practical and effective means of doing this is by washing your hands thoroughly and more frequently than usual with soap and water or when this is not possible, using hand sanitiser. Clean frequently-used surfaces where possible and appropriate using disinfectant products. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing and make sure you wash your hands afterwards. Always wash your hands before eating or handling food. Face masks are very important in healthcare settings to prevent the transmission and spread but have not been shown to be of significant benefit outside of those settings - primarily because they need to be worn, removed, changed and disposed of correctly and safely to be of any benefit. 

There are lots of viruses out there, like flu. Why is this one so worrying?

There are several reasons why researchers and doctors are more worried about this coronavirus than they are about flu. Firstly, since this is a novel (new) coronavirus, meaning that it has never been identified in humans before, humans will not have any immunity against it and are therefore more vulnerable to its effects on the body, which are as yet still somewhat unpredictable. Secondly, there are no targeted treatments or vaccines available for COVID-19 as yet. There is not a lot of information available about the coronavirus in comparison to many other infectious diseases. So far, it appears to be highly contagious and has a significantly higher mortality rate than flu. 

Which groups of people are most at-risk?

Those who have developed any of the symptoms listed above and who have had close contact with anyone with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and/or have travelled to specified countries in the last 14 days prior to the onset of symptoms are considered at high-risk of COVID-19. These people are advised to call 111 to arrange testing. It’s worth noting that this definition is rapidly evolving, as increasing numbers of cases are being identified in those who have not travelled anywhere and appear to have been infected in the local community. For the latest information, please consult the Public Health England website.

People whose immune systems are compromised (for example, due to treatments related to cancers, organ transplants and autoimmune diseases), older people, and those with chronic health conditions, particularly chronic lung diseases are more likely to develop severe symptoms.  

I think I have been exposed to COVID-19 and/or have symptoms. How do I get tested?

You should not attend your GP, hospital or local pharmacy. This is so as to reduce the potential exposure to patients, including those with compromised immune systems, and healthcare workers who may not be wearing protective uniform. You should call 999 if you are very unwell and require emergency attention. Make sure you inform them if you believe you may have been exposed to COVID-19.

The NHS 111 service can help to arrange a test for you if you need one. Some areas offer community testing, where a healthcare professional may come to your home, others may offer a drive-through service where there is a hub separate but near to a hospital where testing takes place. The 111 service is extremely busy at present but will be able to advise on what is most appropriate for you.

I’ve been told to self-isolate. What does that mean in practice?

There is a thorough and detailed advice sheet on home isolation available from Public Health England here. 

What treatments are available?

There is no approved targeted treatment or vaccine for coronavirus (COVID-19) as yet.

At the moment the only available treatments for coronavirus (COVID-19) are supportive, which means they are not able to directly tackle the virus but rather support the body as it tries to fight it off. These supportive measures include medicines which ameliorate the symptoms of the virus, such as paracetamol for fever, fluids for rehydration and various ways of delivering oxygen where respiratory function is compromised, from simple nasal prongs and masks to mechanical ventilation on intensive care units (ITU). Although antibiotics do not work against coronavirus, they may be given to some people with coronavirus who also have a bacterial infection.

Does the flu vaccine protect against coronavirus? How about the pneumococcal vaccine?

In short, no – neither the flu vaccine nor the pneumococcal vaccine protects against coronavirus. The flu vaccine is designed to protect against influenza viruses, which are in a different group of viruses to the coronavirus and therefore cannot be prevented or treated in the same way. The pneumococcal vaccine, sometimes known as the pneumonia vaccine, provides protection specifically against the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae which can cause pneumonia and meningitis.

When will a targeted vaccine or treatment be available for coronavirus?

There are currently trials in progress for antiviral drugs against coronavirus, and preliminary results are expected in the coming weeks. It is important that drugs go through rigorous trials to ensure they are safe and effective for human use. There are ongoing efforts to develop a vaccine for coronavirus but this is not expected to be available until at least next year.