Snakes – the Chinese krait and the Chinese cobra – may be the original source of the newly discovered coronavirus that has triggered an outbreak of a deadly infectious respiratory illness in China this winter.
The illness was first reported in late December 2019 in Wuhan, a major city in central China, and has been rapidly spreading. Since then, sick travelers from Wuhan have infected people in China and other countries, including the United States.
Using samples of the virus isolated from patients, scientists in China have determined the genetic code of the virus and used microscopes to photograph it. The pathogen responsible for this pandemic is a new coronavirus. It’s in the same family of viruses as the well-known severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), which have killed hundreds of people in the past 17 years. The World Health Organization (WHO) has named the new coronavirus 2019-nCoV.
We are virologists and journal editors and are closely following this outbreak because there are many questions that need to be answered to curb the spread of this public health threat.
What is a coronavirus?
The name of coronavirus comes from its shape, which resembles a crown or solar corona when imaged using an electron microscope.
Coronavirus is transmitted through the air and primarily infects the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tract of mammals and birds. Though most of the members of the coronavirus family only cause mild flu-like symptoms during infection, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV can infect both upper and lower airways and cause severe respiratory illness and other complications in humans.
This new 2019-nCoV causes similar symptoms to SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. People infected with these coronaviruses suffer a severe inflammatory response.