Six questions and answers about the coronavirus (COVID-19)

March 16, 2020

An outbreak of the new coronavirus SARS-CoV2 started in December 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan. This rapidly spreading virus can cause COVID-19 disease. The coronavirus is originally a zoonotic virus, which means that the infection was passed on from animals to humans. This falls within the expertise of Wageningen University & Research. We have listed six questions and answers about the new coronavirus.

1. What are coronaviruses?

A large variety of coronaviruses occurs naturally and can cause diseases in many different animal species. The Porcine Epidemic Diarrhoea Virus, for example, can cause severe diarrhoea and mortality in young piglets. The international poultry sector also suffers from infections caused by coronaviruses (Infectious Bronchitis Viruses). Typically, coronaviruses are responsible for causing the common cold in humans. However, coronaviruses that have transferred from animals to humans (zoonoses) can cause serious illnesses. This occurred previously with the specific coronaviruses responsible for SARS and MERS, both severe and potentially lethal respiratory infections in humans.

2. Where did this coronavirus come from? And what is the link between animals and humans?

The new COVID-19-virus (officially known as SARS-CoV2, is part of the same virus family as the SARS-virus. Both viruses occur in several variants in different bat species. The coronavirus is a zoonosis, which means it is transferable from animals to humans. It is yet unclear if the virus was transferred directly from bats to humans, or if a different mammal served as an intermediary host. Research on the virus’ origin suggests that the first patients have contracted the virus at a market in Wuhan (China). A virus bearing similarity to SARS-CoV-2 was discovered in a pangolin, an exotic animal that is sometimes illegally hunted and traded for old eating habits or the presumed medicinal effect of its scales. It is probable that COVID-19 was transferred to humans through this intermediate host.

3. How does this coronavirus spread?

The COVID-19-virus is transferred between humans, presumably through the air and through contact with infected surfaces. The virus can spread through tiny droplets that are released when coughing, and which are then inhaled by others, or indirectly through physical contact. The coronaviruses have a minimal survival time outside the body. Check out the RIVM-website for more information.

4. Is there a vaccine against the COVID-19 virus?

There are several international collaborative efforts to develop a vaccine, such as within the CEPI collaboration. The World Health Organisation (WHO) coordinates International vaccine research.

5. What happens is an animal is suspected of carrying this virus?

A small number of kept animals have become infected with this coronavirus. There are currently no indications that kept animals play a role in the spread of this virus. A vet who suspects that an animal is infected with the virus can contact NVWA. Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR) in Lelystad can test suspicious animals, but will only do so in risk situations and in consultation with NVWA. This was the case with mink that WBVR tested positive from two mink farms in the Netherlands.

6. What measures is the Netherlands taking to prevent the spreading of new (animal) diseases?

Early detection is vital to prevent the virus from spreading.

If a new zoonosis shows up in the Netherlands, Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR) is equipped to research it quickly. If an animal (species) is suspected of being infected; we will sample and test it immediately. This is done through our ‘virus discovery pipeline’, which has been expressly set up for fast detection and characterisation of pathogens.

A swift response, such as mapping new (animal) diseases quickly, is of the essence. And, as has now become apparent, coordination with public health research is a must. Q fever gave the push towards a broader approach which led to the establishing of the Dutch Signaling Forum Zoonoses (SO-Z), a platform where veterinary researchers -from WBVR for example- continuously coordinate with public health researchers from RIVM (The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) and the GGD (Public Health Service).