Coronavirus COVID-19

COVID-19 is a disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). This virus was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and has led to a Pandemic, announced by the World Health Organization on 11thMarch 2020.

This page provides the following information:

  • Key facts about COVID-19
  • What is a coronavirus?
  • How can you protect yourself?
  • Ongoing scientific research


Key facts 

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was first detected in the city of Wuhan, China, in December 2019, after a cluster of patients with pneumonia of unknown cause were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). The outbreak was declared a public health emergency of international concern on 30thJanuary 2020, and the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 was officially named COVID-19 on 11thFebruary 2020. After assessing the outbreak and following transmission of the virus in many other countries worldwide, on 11thMarch 2020 the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. This means that the disease has spread worldwide, and it is the first time that a coronavirus has led to a pandemic.

Scientists are still trying to identify when and how the virus was initially transmitted to humans. Other coronaviruses are known to be transmitted via respiratory droplets, from coughing and sneezing, and COVID-19 is also thought to be transmitted this way.

COVID-19 symptoms are similar to that of seasonal influenza (flu), and include:

  • Dry Cough – constant and becoming more severe over time
  • Fever – a high temperature 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue

You can prevent the spread of COVID-19 using similar methods as you would for the seasonal flu, such as washing your hands regularly, coughing into your elbow, and sneezing into tissues which are immediately thrown away. 

The control of a respiratory disease like COVID-19 is dependent on everyone in the country taking preventative measures to protect themselves and each other. If you feel unwell, with any of the symptoms above, please follow the NHS guidance.


What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that infect animals or humans. Animal coronaviruses mostly don’t infect humans, but can sometimes be transmitted from animals to humans. Most human coronaviruses cause a mild illness, such as the common cold, but there have been recent outbreaks by new coronaviruses that can cause more severe diseases, like middle east respiratory syndrome (MERS), and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). So far, scientists have not been able to identify the animal which led to human infection with the 2019 coronavirus but there are reports that the genome of SARS-CoV-2 is most similar to that of bat coronaviruses. 

There are still many uncertainties around the COVID-19 pandemic, but scientists are using all the data available to identify the severity of the disease. It is not yet clear what proportion of people will have no symptoms when infected with the virus. So far, it appears that 80% of people with proven infection experience a mild or moderate illness, with 20% requiring hospitalisation, and 6% needing intensive care. The disease is more severe in older people, particularly those over the age of 80, with 22% of this age group dying from the disease. Those with underlying medical conditions are also at a higher risk of dying from the disease, with the mortality rates as follows: 10.5% for those with cardiovascular disease, 7.3% for diabetes, 6.3% for chronic respiratory disease, 6% for hypertension and 5.6% for cancer. In people without an underlying health condition, the risk of mortality is 0.9%. These data are from the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and can be viewed on the Our World in Data website

We do not yet have enough information to identify exactly how COVID-19 spreads. However, we know that other respiratory diseases caused by coronaviruses such as MERS and SARS, are spread by respiratory droplets, through coughing and sneezing. These droplets can either be inhaled by people nearby or can spread to other individuals via hands or surfaces. It is for this reason that the advice to protect yourself is to regularly wash your hands, and to cough or sneeze into your elbow instead of your hands. If you do touch surfaces in public places, it is also best to try not to touch your mouth or face afterwards, until you have washed your hands or applied hand sanitiser. 

COVID-19 has been compared with seasonal influenza, and while both may cause similar symptoms, the European Centre for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 1000 people die prematurely when infected with influenza, and the current estimates for COVID-19 suggest that 15-30 people in every 1000 infected will die from the disease. See the ECDC website for more information.


How can I protect myself?

The practical measures being introduced, and the NHS advice is changing rapidly. To stay up to date, visit this UK government website. People are being advised to stay at home if they experience any of the common COVID-19 symptoms, to restrict unnecessary travel to some countries, and to increase respiratory hygiene practices like hand washing and binning tissues. 

All government advice is based on the most up-to-date scientific information, and our researchers, politicians, doctors and nurses are working hard to protect the UK from the most severe public health crisis in a generation. But they need the support of everyone else across the country to fight this epidemic. We must all work together to protect ourselves and each other from this disease. 

Many of the measures being introduced will be unfamiliar and may appear harsh. The everyday lives we are used to will be heavily disrupted and normal daily tasks will become difficult. These decisions are not being made lightly. In the UK, we have many leading experts in infectious diseases and public health, and these researchers are providing information to the government to support policy decisions. All guidance has been developed to protect our communities as best we can, and we must support each other during this time of uncertainty. 


Scientific Research

The main reason that COVID-19 poses more of a threat than seasonal influenza is because we have no immunity to the virus. As part of the UK immunisation programme, we vaccinate children against flu with the nasal flu vaccine, and older people and those with health conditions with the inactivated flu vaccine. Since SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus, we do not currently have a vaccine to protect against it. 

Many scientists around the world are working hard to develop a vaccine to prevent COVID-19, but there is a lot to be done. A team in Oxford led by Professor Adrian Hill, Professor Sarah Gilbert and Professor Andrew Pollard are working as fast as possible on the development of a vaccine to prevent infection from the virus. 



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Page last updated: 
Tuesday, March 17, 2020