The new coronavirus is spreading fast. From a market in Wuhan, China, there are now close to 500 cases of infections globally, including in places like Hong Kong, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, and the United States.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said in a report on Monday, January 20, that there were 278 cases in China alone, with a high concentration in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located. Of this, 51 were severely ill and 12 were in critical condition. The latest death toll is now at nine.
China’s Ministry of Health has confirmed that it’s possible for the flu-like illness to be contracted through human-to-human transmission, and it could spread even faster this week, as many travel to and from China for the upcoming Lunar New Year.
We know that symptoms of the virus include a cough, high fevers, and difficulty breathing… but what exactly does it do to the body? We spoke to Infectious Disease Specialist Mark C. Peralta from the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital and Fe Del Mundo Medical Center in Manila to know more about its effects.
VICE: What is the coronavirus going around now?
Mark C. Peralta: The Novel Coronavirus (nCoV) is a new type of coronavirus which is different from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV). It has different genetic material from the other coronaviruses, which means it’s a new strain.
Coronaviruses are zoonotic, which means transmission can be between animals and humans. For example, SARS-CoV came from civets and MERS-CoV from camels. So far, no specific type of animal is found to transmit nCoV.
How is nCoV different from a regular Pneumonia?
There is a spectrum of clinical presentations of nCoV which can be mild, moderate, or severe illnesses. This includes pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (severe condition that fills-up the lungs with fluid and could cause organ failure), sepsis (bacterial infection in blood), and septic shock (organ failure caused by sepsis). Pneumonia is just one of the presentations of nCoV.
What are the other symptoms?
There is still no particular order of presentation of symptoms, as it is too early to conclude, but the common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms: runny nose, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath, and fever.
Are there any physical signs?
Physical findings on an examination are different based on its presentation, but if it was a case of pneumonia, usually there’s difficulty in breathing, such as gasping or frequent breathing. On a lung examination, there could be crackles or wheezes.
What about its effects on internal organs?
It primarily affects the lungs. It causes inflammation of the lungs (pneumonia), impedes breathing/airway or destruction of the lung parenchyma (Acute respiratory distress syndrome), and could also travel through blood and cause other organ dysfunction (sepsis/septic shock).
What is the worst-case scenario for someone who was infected with nCov?
It can be anywhere from mild pneumonia to acute respiratory distress syndrome, but the worst situation is death. In the long run, depending on the presentation of the infection, another outcome from acute respiratory distress syndrome could lead to irreversible lung injury.
How can people avoid getting infected?
If you have a history of traveling to Wuhan in the 14 days prior to the onset of symptoms, go to the nearest hospital and see a doctor.
Good hygiene is the primary defense against spreading and acquiring the disease, particularly hand washing, and covering your mouth or nose when coughing and sneezing.
For people with symptoms, isolating themselves and informing their doctor or a nearby hospital is the best way to prevent spreading the disease.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.