On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic. (1) While the virus originated in China, the spread of the virus is slowing down there, and there are now more cases in the rest of the world than in China. The numbers of cases and deaths continue to rise in the US and Europe (with Italy worst hit). Other countries that have been hit badly are Iran and South Korea.
Many countries are now putting drastic measures in place to fight the virus. Italy has banned large events and unnecessary travel, (2) and larger events around the world are being cancelled or postponed.
These numbers might seem scary, but scientists around the world are fighting the virus. Among those leading the research are scientists at Twig Education partners Imperial College London, who have been researching how the virus spreads and how it affects the human body while also developing a vaccine against it.
Let’s break down what we know so far.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus is one of seven in the coronavirus family, and its scientific name is Covid-19. Most coronaviruses cause only common cold-like symptoms while some are more dangerous, like the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) that caused thousands of deaths in 2002. (3)
The mortality rate is still uncertain. On March 3, the World Health Organization reported that 3.5% of those infected had died worldwide. (4) However, we still don’t know exactly how many people have been infected, with less serious cases potentially going unnoticed. Professor Wendy Barclay at the Imperial College London Department of Infectious Disease says that the mortality rate is likely to go down since the cases that are discovered first are always the more serious ones, with a higher mortality risk. (5)
Who is more likely to get sick?
The vast majority of deaths will be those who already have weak immune systems, such as the elderly or sickly, and children under the age of two. (6) Older children and adults who are healthy and have a working immune system are less likely to get infected—and if they do, they have a very high chance of recovering.
How does it spread?
According to Wendy Barclay, Covid-19 is likely an airborne virus, just like around 50% of the common colds that infect humans. It’s not yet clear if the virus can spread in the early phase of infection, before a person shows symptoms, and this is something that scientists are keen to find out. While Sars had a higher mortality rate (10%) than Covid-19, we were able to control it quickly because only people who were obviously sick could pass on the virus. (7)
Finding a cure
Scientists at Imperial, spearheaded by Professor Robin Shattock, have been working hard over the last months to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. This will soon be tested on animals and could be ready for human trials as early as the summer of 2020. (8) In the meantime, it’s best to know the symptoms and protect yourself and others.
Know the symptoms
Covid-19 usually starts with a fever and a dry cough, followed by shortness of breath. It rarely causes sneezing or a runny nose. (9) If you have these symptoms, it’s probably worth getting tested—especially if you have recently traveled abroad. According to the World Health Organization, the time between infection and showing symptoms is 14 days, but some scientists say it could be as much as 24 days. (10)
Protecting yourself and others
There are some easy things you can do to avoid getting infected and to stop the virus spreading (this goes for all infectious diseases!):
- Wash your hands regularly using soap.
- Avoid touching your eyes, face, and mouth, as this can cause viruses and bacteria from your hands to enter your body.
- Sneeze and cough into a tissue or your elbow, not directly into your hands—and try to wash your hands after.
- Avoid standing too close to people sneezing or coughing, as water droplets can travel as far as one meter!
Until a vaccine becomes available, we recommend you make sure to take precautions, watch out for symptoms, and avoid traveling to countries where there are high numbers of cases (such as China and Italy).