What we know so far about COVID-19

In just a few months, coronavirus has become a global pandemic. Here’s what you need to know about the fast-spreading COVID-19.

** LAST UPDATED 27 MARCH 2020 **

In early January, reports flagged an emerging virus in China – first detected in late December – that was being carefully monitored by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other health authorities.

By January 22, Chinese authorities reported that 440 people had contracted the respiratory virus – called 2019-nCoV, novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 – and nine people had died.

Since then, coronavirus has spread quickly across the world, with more than 750,000 cases and more than 36,500 deaths reported globally as of April 1. So far, the US, Italy, Spain and China have been the most affected countries. Australia has seen more than 4700 cases, including 20 deaths.

WHO reported on March 30 that the pandemic was still growing quickly and straining health systems in many countries, despite drastic measures being taken across the world to slow down its spread – including lockdowns and social distancing rules.

** Note: Information, news and government guidance on COVID-19 changes regularly. For the latest official health and government advice, visit these websites:

What is coronavirus?

2019-nCoV is a new strain of coronavirus. Previous strains include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that killed 774 people in the early 2000s, and the MERS virus – or “camel flu” – that emerged in the Middle East in 2012.

“Coronaviruses include common cold viruses and viruses causing more severe respiratory disease and transmitted from animals like SARS and MERS,” explains Dr Mike Catton, deputy director of the Doherty Institute.

Symptoms of coronavirus

Dr Catton says the symptoms of this latest virus are flu-like. They include:

  • High fever
  • Pneumonia
  • Cough
  • Chills
  • Respiratory distress

Medical experts in countries hit by COVID-19 say an unexpected loss of smell may be among the first tell-tale signs of the virus.

Loss of smell, or anosmia, has been reported in as many as one in three patients in South Korea, and one in two patients in Germany, says Flinders University.

Ear, nose and throat surgeons say loss of smell – as the virus causes swelling in the olfactory mucosa more than other viruses – could a key clinical indicator in otherwise symptom-free carriers of COVID-19.

“It is these ‘silent carriers’ who may remain undetected by current screening procedures, which may explain why the disease has progressed so rapidly in so many countries around the world,” says Flinders University Professor Simon Carney, from the Southern ENT and Adelaide Sinus Centre.

There is no specific treatment for coronaviruses. In mild cases, symptoms ease but pain medication, rest and drinking plenty of fluids can help.

If you are experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, call the 24/7 hotline on 1800 675 398. You can also use the Healthdirect symptom checker.

Instant Consult offers on-the-spot online GP consultations and can issue medical certificates, prescriptions, radiology and pathology requests and specialist referrals.

How did coronavirus start and how does it spread?

WHO says novel coronavirus is linked to a seafood market in Wuhan where live animals destined for human consumption infected workers and visitors.

Since then, health authorities believe the virus has probably been transmitted from person to person.

The virus can spread when contaminated droplets become airborne through coughing or sneezing, or by contact with contaminated hands, surfaces or objects.

The time between exposure and first appearance of symptoms ranges from two to 14 days, but is usually five to six days.

Most COVID-19 cases appear to spread from people who are showing symptoms, though some people may be infections before symptoms develop.

“With respiratory infections generally, there is a spectrum of severity,” says Dr Catton.

“Typically, the cases detected first are the bad ones because they go to hospital while milder cases are in the community but not detected. It is possible that, as well as the initial severe cases, there are less severe infections.”

What does coronavirus mean for Australians?

The Federal Government as warned Australians to avoid all non-essential travel, with states including Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania even shutting their borders to non-residents.

Federal, state and territory governments have introduced a range of measures to try to slow the spread of coronavirus, including:

  • Asking Australians to stay at least 1.5m away from each other.
  • Closing non-essential services including bars, pubs, gyms, casinos, churches and clubs.
  • Ordering restaurants and cafes to cease operating on a dine-in basis. They can still offer takeaway and delivery.
  • Banning outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people, and indoor gatherings of 100 people (and ensuring that indoor areas offer at least 4sqm of space per person.
  • Restricting visits to nursing homes.

Interstate and international flights have been slashed, though public transport is still operating at least for the time being.

People who may have been in contact with a case of coronavirus are required to self-isolate for 14 days.

Reducing the risks of coronavirus

“Do the things you’d do to reduce the spread of flu,” says Dr Catton.

As well as staying at least 1.5m away from others and avoiding non-essential visits and travel:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water.
  • Carry hand sanitiser and use it often.
  • Keep a distance from people if they have a cough, fever or difficulty breathing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth until you have thoroughly cleaned your hands.

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Written by Sarah Marinos and Michelle Rose.