Coronavirus: What it is, how it spreads, who’s at risk

Answers to questions about COVID-19, the virus claiming lives and disrupting human activity around the planet
A virologist at France's Pasteur Institute looks at COVID-19-infected cells using an electron microscope (Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)
LILLE, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 17: Sandrine Belouzard, virologist and researcher, uses an electron microscope to look at infected cells as she works in her epidemiology laboratory of the "Infection and Imminence Center" at the Pasteur Institute of Lille on February 17, 2020 in Lille, France. The research institute has sequenced the genome of Coronavirus 2019-nCoV using blood samples taken from the first confirmed French cases of the virus. The institute’s scientists will now focus on developing how the virus works, treatments and a possible vaccine. (Photo by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)

What is COVID-19?

The 2019 novel coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19, is the infectious disease that emerged late last year in Wuhan, China and has since spread to more than 100 countries. Most of the confirmed cases are in China, though the total is rapidly rising in the United States, Europe, South Korea and Iran. It spreads easily compared to many viruses, and it is new to humans, so we are not immune. In some people, it causes only mild symptoms, or none at all. In others—especially those with certain underlying medical conditions—it can be life-threatening. 

How does the virus spread?

The most common way human coronaviruses like COVID-19 spread are from person to person—often via close contact (like shaking hands) or what are known as “respiratory droplets” emitted when someone coughs or sneezes. If someone touches a surface that has the virus on it and then proceeds to touch their face, that could contribute to the virus’s spread, which is why everyone should frequently wash their hands.

Can I get COVID-19 from touching a surface that was contaminated?

Potentially, yes—though this is not the primary way it has been spreading, researchers say. According to the WHO, COVID-19 can survive on surfaces for hours or even days, depending on the surface material. Again: wash hands frequently.

Am I likely to get COVID-19 in Canada?

As of this writing, the Public Health Agency of Canada had stated that the risk to Canadians was low. Of the thousands of tests done for COVID-19, fewer than 100 had come back positive. 

But that’s not to say the risk will always remain low, especially given recent outbreaks in Italy and Iran. A person’s travel history, experts say, is becoming less of a factor in diagnosing cases, especially as COVID-19 spreads throughout the U.S., which will inevitably lead to more cases in Canada.

I’m feeling under the weather. Is it possible I have COVID-19? What should I do?

Do you have a fever? A dry cough? General fatigue? These are the most common symptoms of COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization, while others can experience nasal congestion, headache, runny nose, sore throat or just feel unwell. Some of these symptoms overlap with the common cold or seasonal influenza.

Most patients who test positive for COVID-19 have recently travelled to a region where the virus is spreading—like Iran, China or Italy—or they’ve been in contact with someone who tested positive. But there is always the risk of community spreading. 

Regardless, if you’re sick, don’t go to work. Don’t take a bus. Avoid large gatherings. 

And call your local public health department. Or call your healthcare provider. “But call first,” stresses David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health. “Don’t go to the waiting room, especially if you’ve got symptoms.”

Who’s most at risk of getting the virus?

More than 80 per cent of confirmed cases in Canada have been individuals over the age of 40. A WHO report from a mission to China found that people over 60 with pre-existing heart or lung conditions are at the most risk of getting seriously ill.

In Canada, the first death linked to COVID-19 was a man in his 80s who already had underlying health issues.

Can my child get COVID-19?

Yes, but odds are significantly lower. A report in mid-February by the WHO-China joint mission found those 18 and younger accounted for just 2.4 per cent of cases. And only 2.5 per cent of these youths were considered seriously ill. Another mid-February study analyzing more than 70,000 cases from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found zero deaths among those under nine years of age. 

Will this year’s flu vaccine protect me from it?


Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?

Not yet.

How are efforts to develop a vaccine progressing?

There is no shortage of parties racing to make a vaccine—but it will take a lot of money. In early March, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations—a global alliance that launched in 2017 to fund the development of vaccines to stop future epidemics—said it would require $2 billion to support the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

CEPI started to grant millions in grants to pharmaceutical groups working on vaccines as early as January. But these things can’t be done overnight: most haven’t even started trials on humans yet.

One U.S.-based biotech company, Moderna, created a vaccine within 42 days from Chinese scientists unveiling the genetic sequence of COVID-19—and have sent vials of it to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for further study. Still, human trials won’t even start to take place until April. And that’s just phase one of the trials.

According to Antony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseasesa vaccine could be ready “at the earliest [in] a year to a year-and-a-half, no matter how fast you go.” 

Should I wear a face mask?

If you’re sick, or caring for someone who is, then the mask can help block droplets that would otherwise spread from coughs or sneezes.

But experts say there’s no reason for the general public to wear masks. (If anything, it will make you touch your face more often, which is not ideal.) 

Will the summer heat slow the spread of COVID-19?

While it’s true that many viral respiratory diseases are seasonal—like influenza—and die down in the summer, that’s not the case for all viruses. 

“It’s spreading in Singapore where it’s 30 degrees and has 100 per cent humidity,” says Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist and chief of staff at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital. “So if it’s spreading in Singapore, why would we think it’s going to stop here in the summer?”

In short: while a summertime slowdown of COVID-19 would be welcome, health experts can’t bank on it.

Should I cancel my vacation plans?

If you were planning on taking a cruise, yes. Hundreds of Canadians have been stranded on ships where passengers tested positive for COVID-19—first the Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan and more recently the Grand Princess off California. The Public Health Agency of Canada is recommending that Canadians avoid cruise-ship travel.

Otherwise, the federal government also suggests Canadians avoid non-essential travel to China, Iran and Northern Italy, and to take special precaution if visiting Japan or South Korea.

Also, if you planned to visit Israel, be aware that its government now requires that every arrival from abroad—regardless of the country they’re coming from—undergo a 14-day self-quarantine upon entering the country. Those unable to arrange self-quarantine will reportedly be refused entry.