CoVs are positive-stranded RNA viruses with a crown-like appearance under an electron microscope (coronam is the Latin term for crown) due to the presence of spike glycoproteins on the envelope. The subfamily Orthocoronavirinae of the Coronaviridae family (order Nidovirales) classifies into four genera of CoVs: Alphacoronavirus (alphaCoV), Betacoronavirus (betaCoV), Deltacoronavirus (deltaCoV), and Gammacoronavirus (gammaCoV). Furthermore, the betaCoV genus divides into five sub-genera or lineages. Genomic characterization has shown that probably bats and rodents are the gene sources of alphaCoVs and betaCoVs. On the contrary, avian species seem to represent the gene sources of deltaCoVs and gammaCoVs.
Members of this large family of viruses can cause respiratory, enteric, hepatic, and neurological diseases in different animal species, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. To date, seven human CoVs (HCoVs) — capable of infecting humans — have been identified. Some of HCoVs were identified in the mid-1960s, while others were only detected in the new millennium.
In general, estimates suggest that 2% of the population are healthy carriers of a CoV and that these viruses are responsible for about 5% to 10% of acute respiratory infections.
Common human CoVs: HCoV-OC43, and HCoV-HKU1 (betaCoVs of the A lineage); HCoV-229E, and HCoV-NL63 (alphaCoVs). They can cause common colds and self-limiting upper respiratory infections in immunocompetent individuals. In immunocompromised subjects and the elderly, lower respiratory tract infections can occur.
Other human CoVs: SARS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2, and MERS-CoV (betaCoVs of the B and C lineage, respectively). These cause epidemics with variable clinical severity featuring respiratory and extra-respiratory manifestations. Concerning SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, the mortality rates are up to 10% and 35%, respectively.
Thus, SARS-CoV-2 belongs to the betaCoVs category. It has round or elliptic and often pleomorphic form, and a diameter of approximately 60–140 nm. Like other CoVs, it is sensitive to ultraviolet rays and heat. Furthermore, these viruses can be effectively inactivated by lipid solvents including ether (75%), ethanol, chlorine-containing disinfectant, peroxyacetic acid and chloroform except for chlorhexidine.
In genetic terms, Chan et al. have proven that the genome of the new HCoV, isolated from a cluster-patient with atypical pneumonia after visiting Wuhan, had 89% nucleotide identity with bat SARS-like-CoVZXC21 and 82% with that of human SARS-CoV. For this reason, the new virus was called SARS-CoV-2. Its single-stranded RNA genome contains 29891 nucleotides, encoding for 9860 amino acids. Although its origins are not entirely understood, these genomic analyses suggest that SARS-CoV-2 probably evolved from a strain found in bats. The potential amplifying mammalian host, intermediate between bats and humans, is, however, not known. Since the mutation in the original strain could have directly triggered virulence towards humans, it is not certain that this intermediary exists.
Because the first cases of the CoVID-19 disease were linked to direct exposure to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market of Wuhan, the animal-to-human transmission was presumed as the main mechanism. Nevertheless, subsequent cases were not associated with this exposure mechanism. Therefore, it was concluded that the virus could also be transmitted from human-to-human, and symptomatic people are the most frequent source of COVID-19 spread. The possibility of transmission before symptoms develop seems to be infrequent, although it cannot be excluded. Moreover, there are suggestions that individuals who remain asymptomatic could transmit the virus. This data suggests that the use of isolation is the best way to contain this epidemic.
As with other respiratory pathogens, including flu and rhinovirus, the transmission is believed to occur through respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing. Aerosol transmission is also possible in case of protracted exposure to elevated aerosol concentrations in closed spaces. Analysis of data related to the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in China seems to indicate that close contact between individuals is necessary. The spread, in fact, is primarily limited to family members, healthcare professionals, and other close contacts.
Based on data from the first cases in Wuhan and investigations conducted by the China CDC and local CDCs, the incubation time could be generally within 3 to 7 days and up to 2 weeks as the longest time from infection to symptoms was 12.5 days (95% CI, 9.2 to 18). This data also showed that this novel epidemic doubled about every seven days, whereas the basic reproduction number (R0 - R naught) is 2.2. In other words, on average, each patient transmits the infection to an additional 2.2 individuals. Of note, estimations of the R0 of the SARS-CoV epidemic in 2002-2003 were approximately 3.
It must be emphasized that this information is the result of the first reports. Thus, further studies are needed to understand the mechanisms of transmission, the incubation times and the clinical course, and the duration of infectivity.
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