SARS and MERS are two other coronaviruses that have jumped from animals to humans in the past several decades, so it stands to reason that doctors and researchers should be able to learn something about COVID-19 from the similar viruses that came before them, right?
It’s true, and while the three are distinctly different beasts, the three coronaviruses do have things in common.
The new coronavirus seems to have jumped from animals to human sometime late in 2019, probably in one of the animal markets prevalent in Wuhan, China. People began spreading it to each other, and as community transmission has grown and people have traveled all over the world, a global pandemic has been the result.
Although COVID-19 is a new virus, it’s not a new type of virus – coronaviruses are also the culprits behind SARS and MERS, two other dangerous respiratory illnesses that have popped up since 2003.
“Coronaviruses are a family of viruses which can cause a variety of diseases in humans and animals, typically respiratory illnesses in humans,” says Dr. S. Wesley long. “Four different coronaviruses cause up to a third of all cases of the common cold.”
The viruses typically live in animals like bats, pigs, and camels, and because this new coronavirus (and MERS and SARS) had never before leapt to humans, we struggled to combat them. Basically, our bodies didn’t know how to respond to a new invader, even if it’s similar to ones we’ve met already.
“When they make the jump to humans, our preexisting immunity is low. As human beings, we have never seen COVID-19 before and our immune system can’t react.”
Of the group of three, MERS has the highest mortality rate – around 35% – followed by SARS at 10%. So far, COVID-19 has a mortality rate around 2 and 3 percent, but is transmitted much more efficiently.
Which means more people are going to get it, and will perhaps land in the hospital, but fewer people are going to die.
Although MERS is known to still circulate in camels, both viruses disappeared from humans as quickly as they appeared; COVID-19 shows no signs of abating.
Another facet of COVID-19 that makes it easier to spread is that the virus begins to shed and infect others even before the infected person realizes they’re sick. With MERS and SARS, most infected people were already hospitalized before the disease progressed to that point.
“The current coronavirus outbreak is easier to catch, but less serious than their bigger cousins,” explains Dr. Cioe-Pena.
Even with the differences, though, lessons learned from those previous viruses are still extremely valuable. Scientists in China were able to report the strain to the WHO just four weeks after the first patient arrived, compared with four months with SARS. The faster ability to map the virus’ genome means a vaccine and treatment will be able to hit the market as soon as possible.
That said, it’s still a year in the future.
The fact that this version of coronavirus spreads so fast is the reason that social isolation and distancing are the best tools we have in combating it. According to Dr. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, isolating sick patients at home, closing schools, asking people to telecommute, and limiting travel can all help slow the spread.
Don’t panic, but avoid going to public places as much as possible and self-quarantine if you suspect you might be ill.
The fact that we have dealt with and survived SARS and MERS previously have given scientists a leg up on combating COVID-19, so we’re all going to be fine.
Not today, not tomorrow, but eventually. Have faith.