Named 2019-nCoV (2019 novel coronavirus), this virulent strain has instigated a media frenzy and mass public fear. But while China and parts of Southeast Asia appear to be the hardest hit, the CDC has stated that the risk to Americans is low.
One of the reasons the virus is so worrisome is its resistance to antibiotics and its resistance to antivirals. Since it is a virus, antibiotics (which work only on bacteria and microorganisms with cell walls), are basically useless. The fact that existing antivirals have no effect is worrying. While researchers are working to develop treatments, there is currently no vaccine, either.
The outbreak's origins seem to lie in a (now closed) meat market in Wuhan. Since coronaviruses are zoonotic (originate in animals), it is believed that exposure to sick animals led to the initial infections. Unfortunately, some mutations enable the virus to be transmitted from human to human. The rapid spread is likely due to Wuhan's status as is a major city, and major transportation hub.
While Chinese officials have instituted a travel ban, it coincided with celebrations for the Lunar New Year. The biggest holiday in China, it is a time to visit family. And those visits require travel. Think of it as China's equivalent of Christmas, in terms of the sheer volume of people intermingling and moving around. However, cautionary measures and warnings have dampened celebrations somewhat, with many people opting to avoid places like malls and restaurants in favor of staying at home.
Other countries have responded by implementing screening procedures in specific airports. Schools and colleges are sending out warnings, pleading with students showing signs of illness to please stay out of class and avoid spreading what could be a highly infection virus. The CDC has issued a health notice, advising travelers avoid all nonessential travel to Wuhan.
Confirmed cases have cropped up in 14 countries besides the United States. As of January 25th, there have been more than 40 reported deaths and over 1300 confirmed cases worldwide. While most cases are in people over age 40, and most deaths are in people with preexisting health conditions like cardiovascular disease, there have been confirmed cases in young, otherwise healthy individuals as well.
The coronavirus has deceptively mild symptoms that can be confused for the common cold. People infected with the virus often have a mild cough for about a week, usually accompanied by a runny nose or sore throat. It is only when these milder issues are replaced by problems such as severe shortness of breath, kidney failure, diarrhea or symptoms similar to pneumonia, that the infected typically seek hospitalization. But unless you have recently been to China or being in contact with someone who has, it is probably better to treat cough and cold symptoms as simple influenza.
Though that probably shouldn't make you complacent. Greg Poland, the director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group, thinks it is likely that "far more people will die from influenza this year than from any coronavirus." Data released by the CDC on January 24th has shown that there have been over 8,000 flu deaths in America this season, with over 50 pediatric deaths.
Both numbers are far more than those caused by 2019-nCoV in America over the same span of time.
You can protect yourself from infectious diseases by avoiding direct contact with individuals who are coughing or sneezing, as well as washing your hands frequently. The recommended time for handwashes is 20 seconds, and they should be done before eating or using the bathroom. You should also wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, or being in contact with someone who is sick. You should also avoid touching your face with your fingers after classes or being in public places. Face masks are questionable in their effectiveness, though they do have the benefit of preventing people from touching their mouth or nose.