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Novel coronavirus

Novel coronavirus

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of respiratory viruses that can cause mild to moderate illnesses, ranging from the common cold to respiratory syndromes such as MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome). Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface.

Coronaviruses are common in many animal species (such as camels and bats). In some rare cases, they can evolve and infect people, and then spread among the population. A novel coronavirus is a new strain of coronavirus never previously identified in humans. In particular, the virus provisionally named 2019-nCoV at the beginning of the epidemic was never identified before it was reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.

In the first half of February, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), which deals with the designation and naming of viruses (i.e. species, genus, family, etc.), gave the new coronavirus its final name: ‘Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2’ (SARS-CoV-2). The new name was chosen by a group of experts specifically tasked with studying the new coronavirus strain. According to this pool of scientists, the new coronavirus is a sister to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak (SARS-CoVs), hence the chosen name of SARS-CoV-2.

The new name given to the virus (SARS-Cov-2) replaces the previous name (2019-nCoV).

Also in the first half of February (on 11 February), the WHO announced COVID-19 as the name of the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. The name is the acronym of CO-rona VI-rus D-isease and the year of identification, 2019.


The most common symptoms of coronavirus infection in people include fever, cough and difficulty breathing. In more serious cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, kidney failure and even death. Specifically:

  • Common human coronaviruses usually cause mild to moderate upper respiratory tract illnesses, such as the common cold, which last for a short period of time. Symptoms may include:
    • runny nose
    • headache
    • cough
    • sore throat
    • fever
    • general malaise.

As with other respiratory illnesses, infection with the novel coronavirus can cause mild symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat, cough and fever. In some people, it can be more severe and lead to pneumonia or breathing difficulties. More rarely, the disease can be fatal. Older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease are more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.

Since the symptoms caused by the novel coronavirus are nonspecific and similar to those of the common cold and flu, a suspected diagnosis must be confirmed by laboratory tests. People who live or have travelled in areas affected by the novel coronavirus are at risk of infection.


The novel coronavirus is a respiratory virus which spreads mainly through contact with the respiratory droplets of infected people via, for example:

  • droplets of saliva, coughing and sneezing
  • close personal contact
  • touching an object or surface contaminated with the virus, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands.

In rare cases, transmission can occur via faecal contamination.

Normally, respiratory diseases cannot be passed on through food. However, safe food hygiene practices should be followed, and contact between raw and cooked food should be avoided.

Novel coronavirus: what we know about transmission mechanisms

According to currently available data, the people who have symptoms are causing the majority of virus spread. The WHO considers infection before the development of symptoms to be infrequent.

The incubation period is between 2 and 12 days; a precautionary upper limit of 14 days has been set.

The main mode of transmission is via respiratory droplets, not from contaminated surfaces. However, it is also important to focus on the correct hygiene of surfaces and hands. Alcohol-based sanitizers are able to kill the virus. For example, disinfectants containing 75% alcohol (ethanol) or 1% chlorine (bleach).

Normally, respiratory diseases cannot be passed on through food. However, following good hygiene practices in food handling is essential.


There is no specific treatment for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and no vaccines are currently available to protect against it. Treatment is based on the patient's symptoms, and supportive care can be very effective. Specific treatments and vaccines are currently under investigation.


You can reduce the risk of infection, protecting yourself and others, by following good hygiene practices, cooperating with isolation and quarantine measures in case of infection and following the directions of your health authorities.   

The World Health Organization recommends wearing a mask only if you have suspected novel coronavirus infection and respiratory symptoms such as coughing or sneezing, or if you are caring for someone with suspected novel coronavirus infection. 

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Data ultimo aggiornamento: 27 marzo 2020


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