It started with a few patients reportedly having mystery pneumonia in Wuhan, China in late December and has now led to more than 560 deaths (as of publication) in China and more than 20,400 infections, approximately 3,000 of which are severe. The coronavirus is responsible for whole cities being quarantined, Chinese stock markets taking a plunge, and travel bans being imposed, making the headlines every day.

Along with updates on the death toll and reported cases, as well as hypotheses on how it started and even how it spreads, a lot is being done to raise awareness on how to protect against it and to debunk myths that are nothing more than scaremongering.

For those with questions, the first thing to do is consult the US Center for Diseases and Control or World Health Organization websites.

Knowing Your Enemy

The 2019 novel coronavirus belongs to the same class of viruses as SARS, the virus that killed hundreds and whose outbreak started in November 2002. It is a group of viruses that causes mostly mild respiratory disease, but some of its members can be deadly. The new coronavirus is thought to be less severe than its brother, but has now infected and killed more than SARS did during its outbreak.

Humans usually first contact coronaviruses from animals, in which said viruses are not that uncommon. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, MERS for short, is known to have come from camels and has caused more than 2,500 reported infections. At first, the 2019 novel coronavirus was thought to have come from snakes, but more recent studies show that it more similar to the one found in bats. Speculations point to a wildlife market, where wild animals are consumed, as the ground zero of the outbreak.

As studies are undergoing to learn more about how to stop the spread of the virus and to develop a vaccine or cure, we still are not quite sure about how it spreads. According to the World Health Organization, what coronaviruses have in common is that they spread through droplets when people cough or sneeze, or by coming in contact with objects that have been contaminated.

How to Defend Against It

For now, the guidelines on how to avoid catching the virus are similar to what you know about influenza. That is, wash your hand thoroughly and long enough to remove viruses off your hands, avoid touching points of entry (nose, eyes, and mouth), and wear a mask.

The correct choice of a mask is crucial to its effectiveness. For starters, you have to figure out the correct size, if you have not done so already. Masks tend to come in small, regular and large sizes, in addition to masks for children.

Amidst mask shortages, some might opt for children’s masks, but if it does not cover both your nose and mouth, then you are not any better protected than by having no mask on. Improper fitting can reduce the mask effectiveness too. When putting on a mask, the straps should face outwards as if they touch your face, they could create small openings for the virus to enter in from.

In regards to the type of mask, the answer simple. Three-ply surgical masks are the only type that can offer some protection, are widely available, and do not restrict breathing. The outer layer is water resistant and sometimes colored blue, the middle layers filters particles, and the inner layer makes the mask comfortable to wear and absorbs any moisture.

N95 masks, or respirators, offer the maximum protection possible, but make it hard to breathe. Pitta masks filter pollution and pollen particles but offer no protection against viruses, making them as useless as single-layer paper masks in the fight against the coronavirus.

The three-ply surgical masks come with a concealed metal wire on the top whose purpose is to sit on the nose-bridge, prevent the mask from sliding off, and close any gaps. If your glasses become foggy when wearing a surgical mask, then there are gaps from which the virus could sneak in.

Shortages and Exploitation

Unsurprisingly, being in close proximity to China, Japan has already counted 45 infections as of February 6. Japanese drug stores are all out of stock of surgical masks and hand sanitizers. Many have started rationing them by imposing a limit on the number of packs a person can buy, but even then, masks are sold out in a flash. Your best chance of obtaining some, is by queueing outside a store and storming in as soon as it opens.

Pressing on the scare around the coronavirus, prices of surgical masks from some online merchants have seen more than a tenfold increase. For instance, a pack of 50 is sold for ¥5,500 plus shipping on a popular e-commerce website when under normal circumstances, the price would be about ¥500. On the same website, another seller lists a pack of 30 for nearly ¥10,000.

Pocket hand sanitizers are also under shortages, but washing your hands with running water and soap is more effective. While hand sanitizers kill bacteria and viruses, soap and water are effective in removing other contaminants, such as fecal matter, too. In fact, hand sanitizers are only recommended for medical professionals or in situations where there is no access to clean water.

Myths Busting

A lot of false information on how to avoid or even cure infection is becoming viral online. From innocent claims of garlic being a cure-it-all to potentially fatal recommendations of drinking bleach, the World Health Organization has put up a webpage debunking myths.

In brief, mouthwash, garlic, sesame oil, antibiotics and pneumonia vaccines have not been proven effective in protecting against the novel coronavirus. Packages from China or other areas with high rates of infections are also unlikely to spread the virus as it does not survive outside the human body for prolonged periods of time. Lastly, there is no need to stop cuddling with your pets as there is no evidence that the virus can jump to and from domesticated animals.

As the 2019 novel coronavirus is still not considered an epidemic and has taken much fewer lives than influenza does every year, it is still early to panic. Having said this, it is always a good idea to, in the Tokyo governor’s own words, “wash your hands!”

Feature image by Shawn Hempel /