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Explaining coronavirus: Officials say U.S. risk remains low

Explaining coronavirus: Officials say U.S. risk remains low
While experts say the 2019-nCoV outbreak has been handled far better than outbreaks of SARS, MERS and Ebola in recent years -- and general risk to pick up the new virus remains low -- the new one has spread and killed faster than previous coronaviruses. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 31 (UPI) -- Is it time to worry about coronavirus?

The first person-to-person transmission of the 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019 n-CoV, in the United States was confirmed this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And second- and third-hand cases have been reported in other countries.

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But most cases of the virus so far are mild. And most involve people who have traveled to China -- where the outbreak started and more than 200 people have died from it -- or been around someone who has. U.S. health officials believe the risk to the general public remains low.

More people are getting sick or dying from the flu this season than coronavirus.

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Still, health officials are concerned because the 2019 n-CoV coronavirus is new, so there is a lot to learn about it, including how it's transmitted from person to person. There are no proven treatments or vaccines available yet.

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"I don't think people should panic, but they should pay attention to the news and follow recommendations from the CDC and their local health departments," Dr. Robert Legare Atmar, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told UPI. "This is a rapidly evolving situation, and new information is becoming available on an almost daily basis."

The U.S. State Department is advising against traveling to China. Beyond that, officials advise acting as you would in preventing any respiratory infection -- conscientious hand washing and staying away from others who are sick.

RELATED At least 19M Americans sickened by flu so far this season, CDC says

People with coronavirus have had mild to severe respiratory illness, with symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath. These symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure.

World Health Organization officials have said that those who have died from 2019 n-CoV to date had compromised immune systems due to other health problems, like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

"Many persons who have been infected have had only mild disease," Atmar said.

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Old virus, new challenge

While coronaviruses themselves aren't new -- SARS and MERS, the disease affecting parts of the Middle East, are members of the same family -- this is a new strain that has never been identified in humans.

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What is known about 2019 n-CoV is that, like other coronaviruses, it originated in animals -- specifically, live or newly slaughtered animals sold in a wholesale seafood market in Wuhan, China. Many of those infected initially either worked or shopped there.

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Researchers believe that the coronavirus family of diseases may have originated in bats or snakes.

The first cases of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, were reported in China in late 2002, and officials were criticized at the time for the slow response. By 2005, SARS spread to 37 countries, sickening 8,000 people and causing more than 750 deaths.

Atmar said the new coronavirus has been identified more quickly than SARS, which may have brought a lower fatality rate so far -- 3 percent, compared to the 15 percent for SARS. The number of cases and deaths has increased more quickly with the 2019 outbreak though.

Compared to both, seasonal influenza is far more dangerous. Its 1 percent fatality rate results in the deaths of more than 400,000 people worldwide each year.

"We have learned some things after the SARS epidemic, the MERS experience and Ebola," said Richard G. Wunderink, a professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Northwestern University. "Many hospitals are better equipped to evaluate possible cases and use appropriate isolation procedures. So right now, the risk remains low."

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The Trump administration has formed a task force led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to focus on the development of a vaccine.

China quickly made public the virus' genetic makeup, so efforts to develop a shot are well underway. Researchers at biotech firms Inovio and Moderna, as well as with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, are working on several candidates.

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