Your Questions about Coronavirus, Answered


Dr. Todd Ellerin

Todd Ellerin, MD, Director of Infectious Disease

A scenic view of the city of Wuhan, China, featuring the Yellow Tower
Experts believe the virus originated in a market in the city of Wuhan, China.

Over the past couple of weeks, concern has been growing about a coronavirus outbreak in China. As of late January, thousands of people have been sickened during the outbreak, and there have been more than 200 deaths in China.

While the virus was initially confined to Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in China’s Hubei province, it quickly spread. Cases have been confirmed in several countries around the globe, including the United States.

Pictures and videos of hospitals and containment units in Wuhan and elsewhere have spread rapidly on social media, leading to even more concern.

While it’s important to take any viral outbreak seriously, it’s equally important to avoid spreading fear and panic.

With that in mind, here are some answers to common questions about what’s going on with this new virus.

What is a coronavirus?

With this outbreak, it’s possible that many people are hearing the term “coronavirus” for the first time. The virus that is behind this outbreak is a type of coronavirus.

However, coronaviruses are actually quite common. In fact, you’ve probably been infected by one before.

Most coronaviruses only cause mild respiratory illness, including the common cold, an ailment that has affected just about everyone at some point.

What makes this coronavirus different?

The concerning thing about this coronavirus is that it’s what is known as a “novel” coronavirus — basically, a new type of coronavirus that hasn’t been seen in humans before.

While there are a handful of coronaviruses that we know can infect humans, it’s a certainty that there are many other coronaviruses that exist in nature that simply haven’t made their way to humans yet.

In some cases, these viruses may only infect a specific species of animal. However, if a human comes into contact with an infected animal, it’s possible that the virus can evolve or mutate and then spread to humans.

We know that this coronavirus is a bat variant coronavirus, so it’s likely that a bat bit an animal or animals that were then sold in the seafood and animal market in Wuhan.

Through genetic mutations, the virus was able to make the leap for animal to human.

Coronaviruses have been responsible for two of the more high-profile viral outbreaks of the past 20 years: SARS and MERS.

From 2002-2004, severe acute respiratory syndrome, commonly known as SARS, infected more than 8,000 people around the world and led to 774 deaths, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Since 2012, Middle East respiratory syndrome, commonly known as MERS, has infected nearly 2,500 people around the globe and led to more than 800 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

As is the case with the Wuhan virus, when the outbreaks began, both SARS and MERS were novel coronaviruses that hadn’t been found in humans before.

What are the symptoms of this new virus?

The symptoms of the new virus often start off by mirroring the symptoms of the common cold or any other respiratory tract infection. Those symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Body aches


Other flu-like symptoms may be present as well.

What separates this new virus from the common cold or other respiratory infections is pneumonia.

We take things very seriously when, in addition to the symptoms mentioned above, shortness of breath or chest pain are present.

While these symptoms are serious, they don’t necessarily mean the patient has been infected by this new virus; after all, a variety of illnesses cause similar symptoms.

However, those symptoms, combined with recent travel to Wuhan or to other countries with confirmed human cases of this new virus, will be enough to initiate infection control protocols, including isolating the patient and notifying both the CDC and the relevant local board of health.

How concerned should I be about the new virus?

While the outbreak is troubling and any loss of life is difficult, the average person in the United States doesn’t need to be alarmed yet.

However, it’s important for the global medical community to stay on top of this outbreak and to be prepared to take measures to keep it from spreading further.

China was the epicenter of the previously mentioned SARS outbreak back in the early 2000s. Fortunately, both China and the medical community as a whole learned a lot from that outbreak.

Since then, we have dramatically improved our infection control and emergency preparedness systems. As medical institutions, we have systems and technology in place that we didn’t have back then.

As a result, the global medical community is much more prepared to handle an outbreak like this today than it was back then.


Todd Ellerin, MD is the Director of Infectious Disease at South Shore Health.