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The coronavirus: What is it and how can I protect myself?

In partnership with nib Group Medical Advisor Dr Hamish Black

5 minute read
Woman washing her hands in the kitchen sink to follow hygiene precautions.

Stories about the coronavirus have taken over news headlines and social media feeds, with the World Health Organization declaring the outbreak a ‘public-health emergency of international concern’.

To understand more about the virus, we spoke with nib Group Medical Advisor Dr Hamish Black to outline what the coronavirus is, how it’s transmitted and precautions you can take to help stop the spread.

What is the coronavirus?

The name coronavirus comes from the Latin word corona, meaning crown. This is due to the virus appearing similar to the shape of a crown, as it's round and ringed with spikes when viewed under a microscope.

Coronaviruses are actually a large family of viruses that occur in certain animals, and on rare occasions spill over into the human population. (The deadly SARS virus of 2003 was a coronavirus).

The World Health Organization has named the latest strand ‘novel Coronavirus’ (2019-nCoV).

Where did the coronavirus come from?

Cases of the novel coronavirus were first reported in Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019.

Those infected had all recently had contact with the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, which is what’s known as a ‘wet’ market where meat is sold alongside a variety of live animals.

According to the Centre for Disease Control, the novel coronavirus is a ‘betacoronavirus’ which originates in bats and can be passed on to other animals. Although coronaviruses circulate more commonly between animals, they can occasionally cross over to humans through mutations of the virus.

Although no one knows exactly where the virus originated, according to Columbia University epidemiologist Ian Lipkin, “there is no question that this virus moved into humans from an animal source.”

Female doctor standing above a seated patient checking their symptoms

How is the coronavirus transmitted?

Researchers believe the coronavirus is most likely spread from person to person through:

  • Direct close contact with a person while they’re infectious, or
  • Contact with droplets of bodily fluids when an infected person coughs or sneezes

The World Health Organization estimates those infected will transmit the virus to between 1.4 and 2.5 other people, whereas SARS had a transmission rate of 3.

Signs and symptoms of the coronavirus

Many people infected by the virus are asymptomatic, which means they will test positive for the virus but show no symptoms. For others, symptoms can vary from mild to severe. According to Hamish, “The course of illness is variable, and the people who tend to get sick are the elderly or immunocompromised.”

Symptoms arise within two to 14 days of exposure to the virus and can include:

  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as coughing and a sore throat
  • Shortness of breath

Healthy people do not need to wear facemasks as they will not protect you from becoming infected with the virus.

How to protect yourself from the coronavirus

As yet, there is no vaccine for the coronavirus, and antibiotics are not effective on viruses, however, there are basic precautions you can take to help stop the spread.

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow, not your hands
  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap frequently. It is not yet known if the virus lasts very long on surfaces, however it’s advised to wash your hands after contact with something recently touched by someone with the virus

Should you wear a facemask?

Healthy people do not need to wear facemasks as they will not protect you from becoming infected with the virus. However, if you become sick, wearing a facemask will protect others from infection.

Are there places you shouldn’t travel?

Australians are currently advised not to travel to mainland China. For more up-to-date information, check the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) travel advice on the Smartraveller website.

What should you do if you have symptoms?

“Those people most at risk of becoming infected are those in contact with someone with the virus or someone who has travelled to areas with high infection rates such as the Hubei province,” says Hamish.

The World Health Organization advises that if you have mild symptoms and no travel history to China, practise basic hygiene and stay home until symptoms have passed.

If you are diagnosed, “treatment is supportive and also about minimising the spread,” says Hamish. “You will likely be confined to your house for 14 days, and your close contacts will be tested for the virus.”

If you’re concerned about symptoms, call the Healthdirect hotline, which is open 24 hours a day, to speak to a registered nurse: 1800 022 222

For more information you can call the National Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080.

For more information on the Australian management of the outbreak, travel restrictions and advice: https://www.health.gov.au/news/coronavirus-update-at-a-glance

For up to date advice from The World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

Information correct as of 10 February, 2020.

About Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black is the nib Group Medical Advisor. He has been a Medical Practitioner for over 25 years, trained as a General Practitioner and continues to practise as such two days a week. Hamish has also spent many years working in Emergency and Medical Assistance, including leading the nib travel clinical team. He has worked in rural and urban environments in Australia and the UK, including time with the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

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