Here is a comprehensive guide to coronaviruses and the new killer strain that has plunged China into a public health crisis and spread across the world.

Photo: Reuters | Design by ITGD Design Team/Vikas Vashisht

NOTE FOR READERS: This guide, updated with new information and sections, has now moved to a new page. You can access it here.

A mysterious new strain of coronavirus has killed over 2,300 people in China and infected thousands, including in other countries. Three positive cases were reported in India, but all patients have now been discharged and are in home isolation.

The new virus has been named SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes, Covid-19. The WHO has declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, or PHEIC. The same alert was issued for Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year, and for Zika in 2016.

India’s national helpline for information and assistance related to the coronavirus threat is 011-23978046. The dedicated e-mail is

This guide contains everything you need to know about coronaviruses, and the Covid-19 outbreak in particular. (Keep an eye on the Indian health ministry’s Twitter handle, @MoHFW_INDIA, for continuous updates.)

You can use the links below to navigate.

1. What are coronaviruses?2. What are the symptoms of coronavirus infections?3. How dangerous is the current coronavirus outbreak?4. Where did the current coronavirus outbreak begin?5. What precautions should you take?6. What is India doing to contain the threat?7. Coronavirus: WHO busts myths8. Experts slam India’s homeopathy push

Let’s begin.

What are coronaviruses?

Notice the spike proteins on the visualisation of a coronavirus, left, and on the surface of the avian infectious bronchitis virus virion (left in inset collage). They create an effect resembling the solar corona (visible during a total eclipse) and give the family Coronaviridae its name. [Credits (from left): (1) CDC. (2) CDC/Fred Murphy; Sylvia Whitfield. (3) NASA/Aubrey Gemignani. Montage by ITGD Design Team/Vikas Vashisht]


  • Coronaviruses get their name because of their protein spikes
  • They’re transmitted between animals, humans; 7 kinds infect people

The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is part of a family of viruses named for the effect created by spike proteins on their shells, or capsids. Think of how the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona (Latin for crown), appears during a total solar eclipse.

“Any vaccine for the [novel] coronavirus would focus on the antigenic viral spike proteins which look like a halo or crown…of bulbous spikes for which the coronavirus is named. This protein binds to the ACE2 receptor in our lung cells like a forged key to break in.”

– Eugene Gu, MD, Founder-CEO of Cool Quit

Thin-section electron micrographs of SARS-CoV-2 grown in cells at The University of Hong Kong. (Image: John Nicholls, Leo Poon and Malik Peiris/The University of Hong Kong/Twitter/@hkumed)

Seven kinds of coronavirus can infect people, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They include the Covid-19 variety, and the viruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV — not to be confused with the new virus) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV), both of which have killed hundreds (see microscope images below).

SARS virions, left, and a single MERS-CoV virion. (Credits: CDC/Charles D Humphrey and TG Ksiazek (left), and US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Montage by ITGD Design Team/Vikas Vashisht)

Coronaviruses are initially transmitted from animals to humans. Human-to-human transmission of Covid-19 has been confirmed.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus infections?

Common symptoms of coronavirus infections. (Background image: Getty Images. Infographic by ITGD Design Team/Vikas Vashisht.)


  • Common symptoms of a coronavirus infection include fever, cough
  • New virus detected after mysterious pneumonia cases were reported in China

Here’s what the World Health Organisation (WHO) says about Covid-19 symptoms.

As with other respiratory illnesses, infection with [the novel coronavirus] can cause mild symptoms including a runny nose, sore throat, cough, and fever. It can be more severe for some persons and can 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) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.

Are there specific medicines that can be used to treat the infection? Again, hear it from the WHO:

To date, there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the novel coronavirus. However, those infected with [the novel coronavirus] should receive appropriate care to relieve and treat symptoms, and those with severe illness should receive optimized supportive care. Some specific treatments are under investigation and will be tested through clinical trials. WHO is helping to coordinate efforts to develop medicines to treat [infections] with a range of partners.

A still from a real-time visualisation of coronavirus cases in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong by the Johns Hopkins Centre of System Science and Engineering, accessed on January 31, 2020. The largest red circle shows Hubei province, where most of the deaths have occurred.


  • Covid-19 appears to have a lower fatality rate than SARS virus
  • But it seems to be spreading faster, and presents a high global risk

The World Health Organisation’s global risk assessment for Covid-19 is “high”. It is “very high” for China, the source of the outbreak. (Check out the map above, created by the Johns Hopkins Centre of System Science and Engineering. Click here to go to the interactive dashboard.)

On January 30, the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”, or PHEIC, after initially deciding against issuing such an alert.

More than 2,300 people have died so far, almost all of them in China. The death toll is higher than the number of fatalities caused by the SARS pandemic (774) between 2002 and 2003.

On February 13, China reported over 14,800 new cases in Hubei province after authorities began using CT scans to diagnose infections. They earlier used only RNA tests.

The infections have spread to several countries across multiple continents. The number rose sharply in a very short timespan, as the Reuters interactive below shows. Human-to-human transmission has been confirmed.



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