The pathogen of a new lung disease has kept the world in suspense for months. The virus also spreads in Europe and Germany. Researchers explain how contagious the new corona virus is – and how dangerous.

The number of infections caused by the novel corona virus is increasing steadily. New deaths are known every day. In Germany, too, there have been deaths from Covid-19 since March 9. Many people are concerned. How dangerous is the virus? You can see an animation of how the pathogen acts in the human body in our video above or here.

Infected and deaths in Germany

In Germany, cases of the corona virus have now been detected in all federal states. One An overview of the number of infected people and deaths can be found here.

What is known about the corona virus?

Since February 11, the pathogen originally named 2019-nCoV has had a new name: SARS-CoV-2 belongs to the large family of corona viruses – so named because they are surrounded by jagged structures that resemble a crown. Harmless types often only trigger mild cold infections. The new corona virus, on the other hand, can lead to pneumonia and severe breathing difficulties. The lung disease that can trigger the corona virus has been given the name Covid-19 (Corona Virus Disease 2019).

Many doctors compared it, especially at the beginning of the outbreak, to the SARS agent that caused an epidemic in 2002/2003. SARS stands for “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome”. The new name of the corona virus indicates the close relationship between the two viruses. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 8,096 people worldwide developed SARS, 774 of them died. At that time, 349 deaths from mainland China were reported, as well as 299 others from the Hong Kong special administrative region.

How is the virus transmitted?

Like all corona viruses, the new pathogen was probably first transmitted from animals to humans. Mammals in particular carry germs that can spread to humans. Bats and fruit bats are among the sources of the new corona viruses. Farm animals have also transmitted corona viruses to humans in the past.

The new virus can also be transmitted directly from person to person. This is possible even before an infected person has developed symptoms such as fever or cough. It has not yet been conclusively clarified whether the pathogen can only be transmitted via a droplet infection or also via a smear infection. It can be assumed that, like other corona viruses, transmission takes place primarily via respiratory secretions.

The virus multiplies in the throat. While an infected person is talking or coughing, he is dropping droplets, said virologist Christian Drosten of the Berlin Charité at the end of February. “They fly maybe 1.5 meters and fall relatively quickly to the ground. It is the inhalation of such a cloud that infects you in most cases.”

The new types of corona viruses were also found in stool samples from some of those affected. According to the Federal Center for Health Education, it has not yet been finally clarified whether the virus can also be spread via the stool. The German Society for Infectious Diseases assumes that you have to be in contact at a distance of less than one meter in order to become infected.

As the Ärzteblatt reports, Günter Kampf from the Institute for Hygiene and Environmental Medicine at the University Medical Center Greifswald, together with Eike Steinmann from the Ruhr University Bochum, has compiled 22 studies on coronaviruses and their inactivation. This means that corona viruses can remain on inanimate surfaces such as metal, glass or plastic for up to nine days – if they are not removed. Experts such as the Berlin-based virologist Christian Drosten note, however, that in practice the virus is probably much shorter infectious when humans contact it through such surfaces.

Read here whether people who have recovered from Covid-19 are immune.

A case from Wuhan also suggested a few weeks ago that the virus can also be transmitted from the mother to the newborn. Such an infection was found in an infant 30 hours after birth, Zeng Lingkong, the head of the newborn ward at Wuhan Children’s Hospital, said the China News Service news agency. The following studies have so far found no evidence that the virus can pass from mother to unborn child.

Coronavirus under the microscope: Many questions about the enigmatic lung disease from China have still not been answered. (Source: dpa / Center for Disease Control / epa)Coronavirus under the microscope: Many questions about the enigmatic lung disease from China have still not been answered. (Source: Center for Disease Control / epa / dpa)

What are the symptoms?

According to current knowledge, the virus usually triggers fever, cough and fatigue. More severe symptoms such as pneumonia can also occur. Other symptoms may include chills, nausea, headache, and difficulty breathing. Typical flu symptoms such as runny nose or scratching the throat can also belong, according to the Robert Koch Institute. According to the Federal Ministry of Health, some sufferers also suffer from diarrhea.

Researchers at the Institute of Virology at the University of Bonn also recently found that the majority of Covid-19 patients from the Heinsberg district of North Rhine-Westphalia, particularly affected by SARS-CoV-2, had another symptom: 70 percent of them had temporary for two up to three days lost their sense of smell and taste – but without suffering from a runny or stuffy nose at the same time. However, the scientists cannot yet explain the phenomenon. It is also the first expert observation of this symptom.

The incubation period – the period between infection and the onset of symptoms – should be two to 14 days according to current knowledge. However, some studies show that somewhat longer periods are also possible. There is currently no special therapy for treating the infection, only the symptoms can be alleviated with medication.

Are men and older people particularly at risk?

So far, a particularly large number of older people have been infected. Several recently published studies support the assumption that older people are particularly often infected with the virus. In addition, men are apparently affected somewhat more often than women – possibly because women generally have a slightly better immune system.

In a study published in the journal “Lancet”, Chinese researchers evaluated the course of the disease in almost 100 infected patients from Wuhan. According to this, those affected were on average almost 60 years old. 67 percent of them were male. The evaluations also confirm the previous assumption that mainly people with severe previous illnesses are infected. According to the study, half of the patients examined had a chronic pre-existing condition such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

In another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), scientists from China evaluated the course of the disease of 425 patients from Wuhan, whose infection had become known until January 22. Here, too, the average age of the sick was around 60 years, 56 of the 99 infected people examined were men. Not a single child was among the 425 patients. This could be an indication that children are not getting infected as easily or that they usually develop very mild symptoms.

Where does the virus come from?

The Corona virus probably has its origins in a fish market in Wuhan, a city with eleven million inhabitants in the east Chinese province of Hubei.

“The source is believed to have been animals sold in this market,” said Arnaud Fontanet, head of the epidemiology of emerging diseases department at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The market was closed and disinfected at the beginning of the year.

Are the dangers comparable to SARS?

The new pathogen is currently considered to be contagious but less dangerous than the SARS pathogen. While the death rate for the SARS virus was around ten percent, it is only an estimated one to two percent for the corona virus. It is assumed that the rate is even lower because cases with a mild course are not recorded at all. In Italy, however, the death rate is currently significantly higher.

If the corona virus mutates like SARS at the time, the death rate could change worldwide. Some scientists assume that the situation will improve with the onset of warmer weather, which “is not conducive to the spread of contagious respiratory diseases”. However, other experts, such as infectiologist Stefan Moritz from Halle University Hospital and virologist Christian Drosten, question this.

Contagion and course of the disease during the SARS pandemic 2002/2003

Was there a coronavirus pandemic from the start?

Despite increasing numbers of cases in several countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) was initially optimistic. The spread of the virus could still be “slowed down considerably”. On March 11, however, the institution had to officially declare a pandemic.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Berlin assessed the risk of the coronavirus on a global level earlier than the WHO as a “very dynamically developing and serious situation.” In Germany, too, further cases, chains of infection and outbreaks must be expected. According to the Robert Koch Institute, the virus was expected to spread worldwide.

“Pandemics are global epidemics that spread from person to person across large regions and usually affect many people,” says Dr. Stefan Moritz, Head of Clinical Infectious Diseases at the University Hospital Halle.

Coronavirus: is there a vaccine?

There is currently no vaccine. When a vaccination could be available is currently not foreseeable. However, according to the Robert Koch Institute, those who get vaccinated against the flu help to relieve the burden on the healthcare system. Older people can also get pneumococcal vaccinations.

Scientists around the world are already working on the development of an active ingredient. In the United States, a volunteer was first tested with a possible vaccine. This marks the start of the first phase of clinical tests for the vaccine in the US metropolis of Seattle. 45 healthy volunteers between 18 and 55 should take the test.

According to media reports, a first vaccine candidate will be tested in a clinical trial in China from the end of April 2020.

In order to support international measures to contain the virus, the Chinese authorities published the gene sequence of the pathogen early. As a result, a test for identifying infections with the novel corona virus was quickly developed.

What do you need to consider now?

The Federal Ministry of Health advises to adhere to the following measures:

  • Pay attention to good hand hygiene.
  • Follow the cough-sneeze etiquette.
  • Keep at least 1.5 to two meters away from the sick.

If you are already ill, wearing a nose and throat protector can be useful to reduce the risk of infecting other people with droplets that occur when you cough or sneeze. However, according to many experts, mouth-nose protection as used in surgery does not protect against infection by other infected people. According to the Robert Koch Institute, wearing a mask can even create a false sense of security.

If you are concerned that you have already contracted an infection, for example, you should contact your responsible health department. After an individual survey, necessary measures are then taken. RKI President Lothar Wieler also warns that it is important to call the doctor’s office before visiting a doctor. “Even people with very few symptoms can infect others.”

The following areas are classified as risk areas by the Robert Koch Institute and should therefore be avoided: (as of March 25, 2020)

  • Italy
  • Iran
  • Egypt
  • In China: Hubei Province (including Wuhan City)
  • In South Korea: Gyeongsangbuk-do Province (North Gyeongsang)
  • In France: Grand Est region (this region includes Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne)
  • In Austria: State of Tyrol
  • In Spain: Madrid
  • In the United States: states of California, Washington and New York

In addition, the district of Heinsberg in North Rhine-Westphalia is described as a particularly affected area. (As of March 25, 2020)

The Federal Foreign Office has also issued a worldwide travel warning and the federal government has launched a return campaign for holidaymakers.

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