A new Chinese coronavirus, a cousin of the SARS virus, has infected hundreds since the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December.
Scientist Leo Poon, who first decoded the virus, thinks it likely started in an animal and spread to humans.
“What we know is it causes pneumonia and then doesn’t respond to antibiotic treatment, which is not surprising, but then in terms of mortality, SARS kills 10% of the individuals,” Poon said.
The World Health Organization offered guidance to countries on how they can prepare for it, including how to monitor for the sick and how to treat patients.
Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that are common among animals. In rare cases, they are what scientists call zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted from animals to humans, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The viruses can make people sick, usually with a mild to moderate upper respiratory tract illness, similar to a common cold.
Coronavirus symptoms include a runny nose, cough, sore throat, possibly a headache and maybe a fever, which can last for a couple of days.
For those with a weakened immune system, the elderly and the very young, there’s a chance the virus could cause a lower, and much more serious, respiratory tract illness like a pneumonia or bronchitis.
Viruses can spread from human contact with animals. Scientists think MERS started in camels, according to the WHO. With SARS, scientists suspected civet cats were to blame.
When it comes to human-to-human transmission of the viruses, often it happens when someone comes into contact with the infected person’s secretions.
Depending on how virulent the virus is, a cough, sneeze or handshake could cause exposure.
The virus can also be transmitted by touching something an infected person has touched and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. Caregivers can sometimes be exposed by handling a patient’s waste, according to the CDC.
There is no specific treatment. Most of the time, symptoms will go away on their own.
Doctors can relieve symptoms by prescribing a pain or fever medication. The CDC says a room humidifier or a hot shower can help with a sore throat or cough.
Drink plenty of fluids, get rest and sleep as much as possible; if symptoms feel worse than a standard cold, see your doctor.
There is no vaccine to protect against this family of viruses, at least not yet. Trials for a MERS vaccine are underway.
You may be able to reduce your risk of infection by avoiding people who are sick.
Try to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Wash your hands often with soap and water and for at least 20 seconds.
If you are sick, stay home and avoid crowds and contact with others.
Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and disinfect the objects and surfaces you touch.