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COVID-19 is caused by a virus which was discovered in early January in China and has been identified as a member of the family of coronaviruses. The coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, most of which are harmless for humans. Four types are known to cause colds, two other types can cause severe lung infections (SARS and MERS) similar to COVID-19.

The virus seems to be transmitted through droplets spread by coughing that can be breathed in, or infect surfaces that people touch. This virus affects the respiratory system. The main symptoms include general weakness and fever; coughing and sometimes pneumonia and difficulty of breathing in a later stage. Runny noses and sneezing, that are often seen in other respiratory diseases like the flu or a cold, are rarer in COVID-19 patient. 

How dangerous is the disease? 

Our collective understanding of the virus and the disease is still evolving. The latest estimates are that 80% of the people who get infected will only suffer from a mild or moderate form of disease. Fifteen percent will develop a severe form of the disease, which requires hospitalisation. Some 5% will become critically ill.

Sophisticated health care systems may be able to help  even the most critically ill patients to survive, but the danger is that healthcare systems get overwhelmed by the large number of patients who need to be hospitalised. In many places where MSF is working, there is also very limited critical care capacity available should people become seriously unwell. 

It’s clear that there are also infected people who show no or very few symptoms of the disease. There are no good estimates of what percentage of infections these asymptomatic or pauci-symptomatic people make up of the total number of infections.

The disease is more dangerous for elderly people or people suffering from underlying health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and possibly also health conditions such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. 

Having spread to more than two million people already, COVID-19 is clearly highly infectious, but there are still many unknowns about the disease, such as how long it can survive outside of the human body. 

 Find more comprehensive information on COVID-19 on the World Health Organization's (WHO) website