• Frequently asked questions on SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19)

Here is what you need to know about coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19.

What are coronaviruses?

Coronavirus constitute a large family of viruses which can infect humans as well as animals, for example birds and mammals. Coronavirus infection can lead to a simple cold, but also to severe or even fatal disease. The two highly pathogenic viruses SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV cause severe respiratory syndromes in humans. Infections with the other four human pathogenic coronaviruses (HCoV-NL63, HCoV-229E, HCoV-OC43 and HKU1) mainly only result in mild diseases of the upper respiratory tract. In babies, infants and elderly people, however, the infection can take a severe course.

How is SARS-CoV-2 transmitted?

SARS-CoV-2 is mainly transmitted via aerosols during coughing or sneezing or at close contact with an infected person. Health care personnel and family members are among the high-risk populations.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

The symptoms of SARS-CoV-2 infection are fever, coughing, breathing difficulties and fatigue. Most patients suffer from a mild febrile illness with irregular lung infiltrates. Some patients, particularly elderly or chronically ill persons, develop severe acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which is fatal in three percent of cases. In February 2020, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 was named COVID-19 (coronavirus 19) by the WHO.

How can COVID-19 be differentiated from other diseases such as influenza?

Due to the similarity of the symptoms it can be difficult to identify the disease based on the clinical picture alone. For this reason, laboratory tests are required that can reliably confirm suspected cases of COVID-19.

Which regions are currently affected by COVID-19?

The new coronavirus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province. After the outbreak, the infection has spread rapidly over the country. For the latest information and case numbers, please refer to the WHO homepage.

What is the incubation time?

At present, there is only little information available on COVID-19 with respect to the time between infection and onset of the first clinical symptoms. Given current data, however, it can be assumed that the incubation period is three to seven, maximally 14 days.

How is a person tested for COVID-19?

Laboratory tests for the diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 infection include polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) with smears from the upper and lower respiratory tract (bronchoalveolar lavage fluid, tracheal secretion, sputum, nasopharyngeal secretion, oropharyngeal secretion, etc.) for direct detection of the virus. The test is used for primary laboratory diagnostic examination of patients with clinically suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection. Additionally, there are serological tests for the detection of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in the blood. The antibody test is the ideal supplement to direct detection. It supports the diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 infection and helps to confirm the RT-PCR results. Moreover, the determination of antibodies is relevant for the clarification of suspected cases of SARS-CoV-2 without symptoms or with negative results in direct detection. In addition to their importance for diagnostics, serological tests can also be used to gather epidemiological data and for outbreak control. 

Can I become infected by an asymptomatic person?

It has lately been reported that persons infected with SARS-CoV-2 may already be infectious before showing the first significant symptoms. There were also reports about persons who became infected by patients with unspecific symptoms. Based on current data, mainly symptomatic persons are disease spreaders.

Can humans become infected by animals?

Several known coronaviruses circulate in animals without being transmitted to humans. All human pathogenic coronaviruses known so far are of animal origin. It seems that bats are a zoonotic reservoir of SARS-CoV-2.

How can I protect myself from the infection?

As with other respiratory infections, you should practice good hand hygiene, cover your mouth and nose, e.g. with a face mask, and keep a distance from infected persons. In view of the flu epidemic, these rules should basically always be followed.

Is there any specific medication or a vaccine available?

Currently, there is no proven medication or vaccine available against infection with the virus.

Where do I find further information on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19?

World Health Organisation (WHO) https://www.who.int/

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/home