Why is there so much fuss about the coronavirus outbreak?
Many people in the US contract the common cold due to the corona virus* and they only present with mild respiratory symptoms. For those who understand that there are so many causes for the common cold, the striking question is “what makes the Wuhan corona virus different from its classic counterpart?”.
For anyone who has experienced common cold symptoms, the chances are about 15% that they might have contracted their symptoms from a coronavirus. There are over 200 viruses that cause common cold symptoms. The most common cause is rhinovirus, followed by corona, influenza, adenovirus, and then about 200 other strains of viruses that all cause similar symptoms. It is noteworthy to mention that typically the human coronavirus causes mild common cold symptoms when infecting healthy individuals.
Why has the coronavirus caused such panic, and initiated a worldwide epidemic? It all began quietly during the late fall of 2019 in a market in Wuhan, China that originally was believed to showcase all sorts of flesh from rats to cats and bats. Within two months, the entire world became aware of it and coronavirus became an international celebrity.
Why do they call it a coronavirus then? It is shown that this strain of the virus has a genetic structure that has 96% similarity to the classic human coronavirus. I guess the lesson that one learns from this is that the devil must be in the details of that 4% dissimilarity. It is further believed that coronaviruses in bats have been the cause of the recent outbreak. How did we figure out the latter? Because of the 97% similarity between the two genomes! For this reason this disease can be classified as a zoonotic (animal-to-human) disease. However, the striking ability of the virus to also spread among humans has been the underlying cause of its worldwide panic. To distinguish this viral variant from all other coronavirdae we have named it “2019-nCoV” or “2019 Novel Coronavirus”.
Is this the most severe coronavirus that we are aware of? The answer is “no!” Two other serious coronavirus variants have caused epidemic panics across the globe. These include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and middle east respiratory syndrome (MERS). Interestingly both SARS and 2019-ncov have emerged in China, and both are traced back to bats and possibly to cats.
Who is at risk of mortality from the 2019-nCoV infection? In contrast to the public perception and media outlets that add fuel to generate headlines, this disease is most commonly fatal only in immunocompromised population such as individuals with immune deficiencies, elderly persons with declining immune competencies, and young infants who have not yet developed their full immunologic potentials.
I have had a common cold due to coronavirus and it didn’t bug me much, what are the chances that 2019-nCoV may hit me harder? Before I answer this question, let me say that the chimpanzee and human genomes are as similar as the classic coronavirus that you contracted before and the 2019-ncov. The genomes of chimp and man are over 96 percent identical. In the case of the chimp and the man we consider them both apes due to that 96% or more of genomic similarities. However, we consider chimp a brute for that 4% dissimilarity. The 2019-ncov also expresses high levels of genomic similarity to the classic coronavirus, and over 90% of similarity to that of the SARS-like coronavirus. Despite all these, a healthy individual like you may not be hit harder by the 2019-nCoV.
Note that on February 11, 2020 the World Health Organization has renamed the 2019-ncoV, COVID-19.