Medical practice

Novel coronavirus 'limited' spread between people

"WHO warns that a deadly novel coronavirus could be passed from person to person," The Independent reports.

The news – featured in much of the media – is based on the latest ‘state of play’ advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) on the novel coronavirus (nCV). However, public health officials in the UK have stated that there is no evidence of 'sustained' transmission (ie. no-one who has been infected by another person, has gone one to infect more people).

nCV, which is genetically similar to the SARS virus, was first reported in the autumn of 2012 and appears to have originated in the Middle East.

Initial symptoms of nCV are similar to a severe case of the flu and include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • breathing difficulties

Unlike flu, nCV is thought to have a high risk of causing serious, life-threatening complications such as pneumonia and kidney failure.

What have the WHO said about nCV?

The WHO has confirmed that as of May 12 2013 there have been 34 confirmed cases – the majority of which occurred in Saudi Arabia.

The current thinking is that the virus mainly affects people who are already ill and have a weakened immune system.

How does nCV compare to SARS?

Despite nCV being similar to SARS (both come from the coronavirus ‘family’ of viruses) there are important differences between the two.

The bad news is that nCV appears to be much more deadly than SARS. Of the 34 people who have contracted it, 18 have died. Resulting in a death rate (or in medical terms, a case fatality rate) of around 52%. However, it is not clear whether there are cases of mild illness that have not been reported or confirmed. This means the real case mortality rate is far lower.

And the good news is that nCV seems to be far less contagious than SARS.

From the available evidence, it seems that nCV can only spread from person to person if prolonged close physical contact takes place. In other words, you may catch it if you share a home with an infected person, but not if you share a bus or an aeroplane.

While remaining vigilant to any potential threat, the WHO does not consider nCV to pose the same kind of potential threat as SARS or swine flu.

What is being done to counter the threat of nCV?

Global research efforts into nCV are being lead by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is currently in the process of establishing surveillance systems to track any further spread of infection.

Saudi health officials are also trying to establish the source of the virus and how it spreads.

Is there any treatment for nCV?

A recent study found that two anti-viral drugs, ribavirin and interferon-alpha 2b, can help slow the replication of the virus in human cells. This may potentially help reduce the risk of complications such as kidney failure.

However, there is currently no effective vaccine for nCV.

Is there any threat to people in the UK?

Based on the current evidence, the threat to people living in the UK is thought to be minimal.

One issue of concern is that visitors to Saudi Arabia during the Hajj in October could contract the infection.

This risk should be reduced if you take some common-sense precautions, such as:

  • washing your hands frequently
  • cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough
  • avoid sharing food, drink and utensils
  • regularly clean surfaces with disinfectant

For more information, read the Public Health England advice on the novel coronavirus.

NHS Attribution