1. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that includes viruses that may cause a range of illnesses in humans, from common cold-type respiratory infections to SARS. Viruses of this family also cause a number of animal diseases.
2. What’s it called again?
Currently being referred to as MERS-CoV or nCoV-2012, this virus has also been called Human Coronavirus-Erasmus Medical Center (hCoV-EMC), and even “Saudi SARS” (it’s not – SARS is a related but different Coronavirus).
3. The first known case of MERS-CoV infection was in a Saudi Arabian man who died in early 2012. This particular strain of coronavirus had not been previously identified in humans. The second confirmed case appeared in early September 2012, involving a 49-year old man in Doha, Qatar who had traveled to Saudi Arabia around the same time that the first case was identified. Currently, at least 40 cases have been confirmed, and 20 of those affected have died. The virus has also been found in Tunisia.
4. Where did it come from?
Bats. (It’s [nearly] always bats.) Bat coronaviruses carried by the genus Pipistrellus that differ from MERS-CoV by as little as 1.8%. The existence of over 50 species of Pipistrellus bats in the Arabian Peninsula suggests that they may be the animal reservoir.
5. Symptoms of MERS-CoV infection include renal failure and severe acute pneumonia, which often result in a fatal outcome. In humans, the virus has a strong tropism for nonciliated bronchial epithelial cells because it uses dipeptidyl peptidase 4 (DPP4, also known as CD26) as a receptor.
6. nCoV can penetrate the bronchial epithelium and evade the innate immune system, signs that it is well-equipped for infecting human cells. This suggests that although MERS-CoV may have jumped from animals to humans very recently, it is as well adapted to infecting the human respiratory tract as other, more familiar human coronaviruses, including the SARS virus and the common cold Coronavirus HCoV-229E.
7. The virus is susceptible to treatment with interferons, immune proteins that have been used successfully to treat other viral diseases, offering a possible method of treatment in the event of a large-scale outbreak.
8. How is it transmitted?
Almost certainly like other respiratory viruses, via aerosol droplets from coughs and sneezes, but possibly also by unwashed hands contaminated with respiratory secretions.
9. Is there a vaccine?
Not yet. It is possible to make vaccines agains Coronaviruses and several SARS vaccines were developed but never put into use because the SARS outbreak died away. It should be possible to make a nCoV vaccine if we need one.
10. Is there any travel advice?
At the moment the World Health Organization says there is no reason to impose any travel restrictions. Travel advice will be kept under review if additional cases occur or when the patterns of transmission become clearer.
11. Are we all going to die?
Probably not. Most of the people who have been infected so far have been older men, often with other medical conditions. The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 infected over 8000 people and killed nearly 800 before burning itself out. But SARS didn’t kill us all and it’s unlikely that MERS-CoV will either.
Other things you should know:
- 10 things you should know about H1N1 (swineflu)
- 10 things you should know about E. coli
- 10 things you didn’t know about Schmallenberg virus
- 10 things about Foot and Mouth Disease