The coronavirus sweeping China and trickling across borders has a lot in common with the flu, but it has the potential to be dangerous if not identified quickly, experts say.
The virus has so far killed 17 people and sickened hundreds more, and it’s spreading rapidly. Cases now stretch from China to Thailand and, more recently, the United States. Canada has no confirmed cases as of Jan. 23.
The central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have emerged from, was placed on lockdown this week in an effort to suppress the outbreak.
The mysterious lung virus is part of a large family of coronaviruses with a wide range of severity — from deadly strains like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrom (MERS) to the simple common cold.
Runny nose, headache, cough and fever are all symptoms of this new coronavirus strain but they’re also common symptoms of influenza.
Part of the difficulty in weeding out mild cases of coronavirus is its similarities with the flu, said Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
“Every respiratory virus is the same — you get a runny nose, a stuffy nose, a cough, sometimes a sore throat, all because the lining of your nose and throat are damaged. The symptoms are caused by that virus or bacteria damaging the cells of your respiratory tract. It doesn’t matter what virus is causing it.”
Things like shortness of breath, chills and body aches are linked with more dangerous kinds of coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In extremely serious cases — especially in those with weakened immune systems — the virus can cause pneumonia, bronchitis, kidney failure and death.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said that, so far, most of those who have died from the virus had “underlying health conditions,” such as hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular diseases, which weakened their immune systems. Of those infected, one quarter has experienced at least one severe disease in the past.
But symptoms of milder coronavirus cases can be “somewhat indistinguishable” from the flu, said Eleanor Fish, an immunology professor at the University of Toronto.
She echoed the WHO in saying that there’s still so much that’s not known about the virus, including how easily it spreads or its an understanding of its full severity.
“Since the data, so far, is from patients who show up in hospitals (severely ill), it’s not yet clear whether their symptoms are the same as those who are infected with a milder case of the disease,” Fish said.