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Explainer: Are you in danger of catching the coronavirus?

Navy Times editor’s note: On Thursday, U.S. military officials in Japan announced that a man in Kanagawa prefecture had contracted the potentially deadly coronavirus while visiting the Chinese port of Wuhan, where at least 800 people have become ill with the disease and 26 have died. Although he recovered after a hospital stay in Japan, authorities warned sailors and soldiers to watch for symptoms of the pneumonia-like virus. Kanagawa prefecture is home to United States Fleet Activities Yokosuka and Naval Air Facility Atsugi. Luckily for us, there are experts like Dr. Petri who can answer the questions you’re probably thinking.

Am I at risk?

Not now, because currently every case of the novel coronavirus is linked to Wuhan.

There are lots of different coronaviruses that group into three types. The common cold can be caused by both alpha and betacoronaviruses.

Coronavirus was never really taken that seriously until 2003, when a coronavirus jumped species – likely from bats to humans via civets – and led to SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.

This species-jumping ability of coronaviruses is being observed again, now in Wuhan at the seafood market. This coronavirus is in the betacoronavirus group.

China has now put travel restrictions in place to limit spread from Wuhan.

What’s the big concern with this virus?

For the novel coronavirus from Wuhan, there is no vaccine, and we’re lacking a specific therapy.

So it is key to limit spread through quarantine of infected individuals and by tracing of contacts.

What is so unusual about this coronavirus?

This is a coronavirus that has never been seen in humans before.

It likely came from bats, and it’s much more serious than the common cold coronavirus. This is only the third time that we’ve seen a coronavirus jump species from animals to humans.

The concern is that this coronavirus is going to behave like SARS and MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2012, both of which were serious.

A staff member wearing a hazardous materials suit on Thursday hauls a bin at a hospital that reported a coronavirus death in Yichang in central China's Hubei Province. (Chinatopix via AP)
A staff member wearing a hazardous materials suit on Thursday hauls a bin at a hospital that reported a coronavirus death in Yichang in central China's Hubei Province. (Chinatopix via AP)

Do the deaths appear to be among people of a certain age?

Many were in older men with pre-existing conditions.

How can I stay safe?

First of all, you need not be concerned about catching this right now. Practice the same precautions that you would to prevent catching a cold.

Viruses that cause the common cold are on surfaces of handrails and doorknobs, so wash your hands, use sanitizers and stay home when you are sick.

Dr. William A. Petri is the Wade Hampton Frost Professor of Medicine and Vice Chair for Research of the Department of Medicine at the University of Virginia. He studies immunology and molecular pathogenesis of enteric infections and their consequences.

Corpsman Lamont, Driving ambulance at Naval Hospital, New London, Connecticut. Died in flu epidemic September 27, 1918. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
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