About coronaviruses and COVID-19

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some coronaviruses cause illness in humans and others cause illness in animals, such as bats, camels, and civets. Human coronaviruses generally cause mild illness, such as the common cold.

Rarely, animal coronaviruses can evolve to infect and spread among humans, causing severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which emerged in 2002, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) which emerged in 2012.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a new strain of coronavirus that is causing disease in humans and spreading from person-to-person. The name of the disease is COVID-19.

What we know about COVID-19?

The current COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly. We are still learning about how this new virus spreads and the disease it causes. We know:

  • the virus causes respiratory disease that can spread from person to person
  • most people experience mild flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat and shortness of breath
  • some people experience severe illness and, sadly, a small proportion die
  • older people and people with underlying medical conditions seem to be more at risk of severe illness
  • there is no treatment for COVID-19, but medical care can treat most of the symptoms – antibiotics do not work on viruses
  • a vaccine is currently not available.

How does it spread?

The virus most likely spreads through:

  • close contact with an infectious person
  • contact with droplets from an infected person’s uncovered cough or sneeze (if you are within 1.5 metres or two large steps of an infected person)
  • touching objects or surfaces (like doorknobs, sink taps and tables) that have cough or sneeze droplets from an infected person, and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of COVID-19 can range from mild illness to pneumonia. Some people will recover easily, and others may get very sick very quickly.

People with coronavirus may experience:

  • fever
  • symptoms such as coughing, a sore throat and fatigue
  • shortness of breath

People with severe illness may have difficulty breathing, which is a sign of pneumonia and requires immediate medical attention.

It can take up to 14 days for symptoms to show after a person has been infected.

For more information go to Testing for COVID-19.

Who is most at risk?

The following people are at higher risk of serious illness:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 50 years and older, with one or more chronic medical conditions
  • people 65 years and older, with one or more chronic medical conditions
  • people 70 years and older
  • people with a weakened immune system.

Chronic medical conditions include diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, cancer and kidney failure.

To minimise your risk, it is important to follow advice about preventing the spread, cleaning and physical distancing.

What is the treatment for COVID-19?

Around the world, no medication has been found to safely and effectively treat COVID-19. Antibiotics do not work on viruses.

In Australia, no drugs have been approved for treating COVID-19.

There is a huge amount of global effort going in to finding a safe treatment as quickly as possible.

Some medicines are being investigated through clinical trials, to see how well they work and if they are safe. There are 90 countries, including Australia, working together with World Health Organization to find an effective treatment for COVID-19.

While there is no proven treatment for COVID-19, medical care can treat most of the symptoms.

Many people who get COVID-19 have relatively mild symptoms. Most recover over a week or two at home without treatment.

Why is it taking so long to make a vaccine?

The virus that causes COVID-19 is so new and different that it needs its own vaccine.

Existing vaccines do not protect against the virus that causes COVID-19.

The World Health Organization is coordinating global effort to create a vaccine against COVID-19. Researchers are working as hard as they can on this.

It takes time to develop a vaccine from scratch. First it needs to be created, then researchers need to check it is safe to use. If it is safe, it needs to be manufactured and distributed on a large scale.

While we wait for a vaccine to be readily available, it’s important we all follow the rules to slow the spread of COVID-19. Stay home as much as possible, wash your hands well and often, and always cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the inside of your elbow.

Why not test people who don't have symptoms?

Testing people for COVID-19 is important to stop the spread of the disease in the community. Testing identifies people who have the virus, and isolating those people stops them passing it on.

To be most effective, the focus of testing in Australia – especially in areas where the virus is not spreading in the community – is on people who have any cold or flu-like symptoms, even mild. When COVID-19 is not spreading in the community, testing people without symptoms is not an efficient or effective way to find rare cases.

The main reason for targeting people with symptoms is that they are more likely to have COVID-19 than people without symptoms. People with symptoms are also more likely to pass the virus on to other people than those who don’t.

Sometimes testing is recommended for people who don’t have symptoms. For example, if there is an outbreak, people who may be at risk in the same setting or community (including healthcare workers and aged care workers) may be targeted for testing, along with contacts of confirmed cases.

Tasmania’s approach to testing people for COVID-19 is like the approach used interstate and is based on recommendations from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. That Committee is made up of Chief Health Officers from around Australia and is the main national expert committee advising on COVID-19 in Australia. That committee itself is advised by groups of national experts on communicable disease control and laboratory testing.