Coronavirus: What is it and should we be worried?


(Updated as of March 9, 2020)

Coronavirus (CoV) is a family of viruses that can cause respiratory infection. These range from the common cold to more deadly strains such as SARS and MERS, which emerged in 2004 and 2012 respectively. The most recent one, which is simply referred to as “coronavirus,” is another strain of the virus family officially called COVID-19.

Between 2014 and 2016, an outbreak of Ebola crippled international travel, killed almost 12,000 people, and spread like wildfire across our increasingly interconnected globe. Four years later, Ebola still infects African nations in sporadic waves, but with the development of an effective vaccine, a large-scale outbreak is no longer a realistic fear. Although Ebola may no longer be a pressing concern in North America, a new virus emerged in late 2019 that the media has portrayed as the next Ebola. Coronavirus has spread so rapidly through China that the Chinese government has declared a quarantine that now covers over 50 million people within the Wuhan province. The quarantine prompted an extension of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, a shortage of medical masks within China, and an international fear of the spread of Coronavirus. While the death rate is at 2% with COVID-19 whereas Ebola was about 10%, the virus poses a serious threat to the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.

On January 21, Coronavirus was officially diagnosed within the United States. As of January 27th, there were 110 people under evaluation for the infection within the United States. Now, 33 states in the US and 104 countries and territories around the world and 1 international conveyance (the Diamond Princess cruise ship harbored in Yokohama, Japan) have been infected. Washington State, New York, California and Oregon have declared emergencies, and there have been 22 logged deaths and over 500 cases as of March 9th. No confirmed cases have reached Louisiana yet, but tests have been performed and as of today, March 9th, the first presumptive case has been reported and is being tested in Orleans Parish.

The most severe pandemic of recent history occurred in 1918, known as the Spanish flu, although it is unlikely that the disease actually started in Spain. It attacked 1/5th of the world’s population and killed 50 million people, millions more than the 37 million civilian and military causalities of WWI. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history, including the Black Death (although the percentage of people killed was much higher, around 50 million people, or 60%, of Europe’s population died). While it does not appear that COVID-19 is as deadly as any of these previous pandemics, it begs the question, when will the next one come?

During the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, it took about 20 months for a vaccine to be ready for testing in people. By then, the illness had been contained by quarantine and identification of people with the disease. While a vaccine is in the process of being made, it is unlikely that enough can be manufactured to protect everyone who is exposed to COVID-19. Because of this, health officials would need to prioritize who gets the vaccine, and those are the people most at risk: the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions. In China as of February 11th, only “8.1% of cases were people in their 20s, 1.2% were teens, and 0.9% were 9 or younger. The World Health Organization mission to China found that 78% of the cases reported as of February 20th were in people ages 30 to 69. But the fatality rate was 14.8% in people 80 or older, likely reflecting the presence of other diseases, a weaker immune system, or simply worse overall health. By contrast, the fatality rate was 1.3% in 50-somethings, 0.4% in 40-somethings, and 0.2% in people 10 to 39.” So overall, the student body is at low risk. However, in the event that the coronavirus arrives, school will likely be canceled and transition to an online platform.