Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a previously unknown betacoronavirus that was discovered in bronchoalveolar lavage samples taken from clusters of patients who presented with pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, in December 2019.
Coronaviruses are a large family of enveloped RNA viruses, some of which cause illness in people (e.g., common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS], Middle East respiratory syndrome [MERS]), and others that circulate among mammals and birds. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can spread to humans and subsequently spread between people, as was the case with SARS and MERS.
SARS-CoV-2 belongs to the Sarbecovirus subgenus of the Coronaviridae family, and is the seventh coronavirus known to infect humans. The virus has been found to be similar to SARS-like coronaviruses from bats, but it is distinct from SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. The full genome has been determined and published in GenBank. GenBank external link opens in a new window
A preliminary study suggests that there are two major types (or strains) of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in China, designated L and S. The L type was found to be more prevalent during the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan City and may be more aggressive (although this is speculative), but its frequency decreased after early January. The relevance of this finding is unknown at this stage and further research is required. Patients in Singapore infected with a SARS-CoV-2 variant with a 382-nucleotide deletion appeared to have a milder course compared with those infected with a wild-type virus.
Origin of virus
A majority of patients in the initial stages of this outbreak reported a link to the Huanan South China Seafood Market, a live animal or "wet" market, suggesting a zoonotic origin of the virus. An initial assessment of the transmission dynamics in the first 425 confirmed cases found that 55% of cases before 1 January 2020 were linked to the market, whereas only 8.6% of cases after this date were linked to the market. This suggests that person-to-person spread was occurring among close contacts since the middle of December 2019.
Some studies suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may be a recombinant virus between a bat coronavirus and an origin-unknown coronavirus. Pangolins have been suggested as a possible intermediate host; however, the virus has not been identified in an animal host as yet. Further research is required to determine the origin of SARS-CoV-2.
Respiratory transmission is the dominant mode of transmission, with proximity and ventilation being the key determinants of transmission risk. Available evidence suggests that transmission between people occurs primarily through direct, indirect, or close contact with infected people through infected secretions such as saliva and respiratory secretions, or through their respiratory droplets, which are expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, or sings.
Airborne transmission can occur in healthcare settings during aerosol-generating procedures. There are also some outbreak reports that suggest aerosol transmission is possible in the community under certain conditions; however, these reports relate to enclosed indoor crowded spaces with poor ventilation where the infected person may have been breathing heavily (e.g., restaurants, choir practice, fitness classes). A detailed investigation of these clusters suggests that droplet and fomite transmission could also explain the transmission in these reports.
Fomite transmission (from direct contact with fomites) may be possible, but there is currently no conclusive evidence for this mode of transmission. In the few cases where fomite transmission has been presumed, respiratory transmission has not been completely excluded. The virus has been found to be more stable on plastic and stainless steel (up to 72 hours) compared with copper (up to 4 hours) and cardboard (up to 24 hours) under experimental conditions, but this does not reflect real-life conditions. In healthcare settings, the virus is widely distributed in the air and on object surfaces in both general wards and intensive care units. However, no virus has been cultured from these samples indicating that the deposition may reflect nonviable viral RNA.
Fecal-oral transmission (or respiratory transmission through aerosolized feces) may be possible, but there is only limited circumstantial evidence to support this mode of transmission. The pooled detection rate of fecal SARS-CoV-2 RNA in patients with COVID-19 is approximately 51%, with 64% of samples remaining positive for a mean of 12.5 days (up to 33 days maximum) after respiratory samples became negative.
Transmission via other body fluids (including sexual transmission or bloodborne transmission) has not been reported. While the virus has been detected in blood, cerebrospinal fluid, pericardial fluid, pleural fluid, urine, semen, saliva, ocular tissue, tears, and conjunctival secretions, as well as in the middle ear and mastoid, the presence of virus or viral components does not equate with infectivity.
Vertical transmission occurs rarely and transplacental transmission has been documented. Overall, 6.3% of infants born to mothers with COVID-19 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 at birth. Transmission was reported in both preterm and full-term infants. There is also evidence for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 among infants born to mothers with COVID-19 who tested negative for SARS-CoV-2. The rate of infection appears to be no greater when the baby is born vaginally, breastfed, or allowed contact with the mother. Viral fragments have been detected in breast milk; however, no replication-competent virus has been detected, suggesting that transmission via breast milk is unlikely. Vertical transmission is unlikely to occur if correct hygiene precautions are taken.
Nosocomial transmission was reported in 44% of patients in one systematic review; however, this review was limited to case series conducted early in the outbreak in Wuhan before the institution of appropriate infection prevention and control measures. The nosocomial infection rate in a major London teaching hospital was around 15% during the peak of the outbreak. More recent reports of healthcare workers exposed to index cases (not in the presence of aerosol-generating procedures) found little to no nosocomial transmission when contact and droplet precautions were used.
Transmission dynamics in relation to symptoms
Transmission from asymptomatic cases (laboratory-confirmed cases who do not develop symptoms) has been documented. However, evidence is limited, and the World Health Organization states that asymptomatic cases are much less likely to transmit the virus than those who develop symptoms, and asymptomatic cases are not the major driver of the overall epidemic dynamics. Numerous studies have reported no evidence of asymptomatic transmission from carriers of SARS-CoV-2.
Estimating the prevalence of asymptomatic cases in the population is difficult. A meta-analysis of over 50,000 people found that 15.6% of confirmed cases were asymptomatic at the time of testing, and nearly half developed symptoms later. However, estimates of the proportion of asymptomatic cases vary widely from between 1.2% to 80%, depending on the study population. The overall estimate of the proportion of people who become infected and remain asymptomatic throughout infection was 20%.
Healthcare workers may play a role in asymptomatic transmission. About 7.6% of healthcare workers who worked in hospital units with infected patients tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies; however, only 58% of these workers reported prior symptoms. A cross-sectional study of nearly 2800 healthcare workers found that 5.4% of COVID-19-facing asymptomatic healthcare workers tested positive, compared with 0.6% of non-COVID-19-facing asymptomatic healthcare workers.
Children are more likely to be asymptomatic. The pooled proportion of asymptomatic cases in children was thought to be significant (around 40%). However, a recent study found that the rate of asymptomatic infection in children was 1% compared with 9% in adults.
Superspreading events have been reported. These events are associated with explosive growth early in an outbreak and sustained transmission in later stages.
Reported events include church/religious gatherings, family gatherings, weddings, choir practices, overnight youth camps, fitness classes, indoor recreational sporting activities, business conferences, and working in call centers. Widespread transmission has also been reported in long-term care facilities, homeless shelters, prisons, and meat and poultry processing facilities, as well as on board cruise ships.
Some individuals are supershedders of virus, but the reasons underlying superspreader events are often more complex than just excess virus shedding and can include a variety of behavioral, host, and environmental factors.
Viral transmission factors
Reproduction number (R₀)
Preliminary reports suggested that the reproduction number, the number of people who acquire the infection from an infected person, was estimated to be 2.2 to 3.3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives a current best estimate of 2.5 (as of 10 September 2020).
The R₀ decreases when public health measures (e.g., social distancing) are put in place.
The time between the start of symptoms in the primary patient and the onset of symptoms in the patient being infected in a chain of transmission has been estimated to be approximately 5 to 6 days.
Secondary attack rate
The secondary attack rate is the proportion of people exposed to an index (or primary) case that go on to develop the disease as a result of the exposure.
The pooled household secondary attack rate is 18.1%; however, there is significant heterogeneity across studies with the rate ranging from 3.9% to 54.9%. The rate is higher for symptomatic index cases compared with asymptomatic cases, and adults have a higher susceptibility to infection compared with children. Spouses of the index case are more likely to be infected compared with other household members. The secondary attack rate in healthcare settings has been estimated at 0.7%.
The secondary attack rate increases with the severity of the index case (i.e., 0.3% for asymptomatic cases to 6.2% for severe/critical cases) according to a study of 3410 close contacts of 391 index cases.
The secondary attack rate for close contacts of presymptomatic people is approximately 3.3%, with a rate of 16.1% for household contacts, 1.1% for social contacts, and 0% for work contacts.
Children ages <5 years had lower secondary attack rates compared with older children, and the risk of infection was higher if the household index case was the mother. The secondary attack rate was 1.2% in children in a childcare setting or school.
Viral load is highest in the upper respiratory tract (nasopharynx and oropharynx) early in the course of infection, and then increases in the lower respiratory tract (sputum). Viral load rapidly decreases after symptom onset. Patients with severe disease have higher viral loads compared with those with mild disease.
Viral load in the upper respiratory tract is comparable in asymptomatic patients and those with mild symptoms.
The median duration of viral shedding has been estimated to be between 8 and 20 days after symptoms resolve. However, shedding has been detected for up to 60 days in various samples, and for 104 days in one pregnant woman.
Duration of viral shedding was longer in symptomatic patients compared with asymptomatic patients (25.2 days versus 22.6 days), and in patients with severe illness compared with those with mild illness (21 days versus 14 days).
The period of infectiousness is far shorter than the duration of detectable viral shedding. No viable virus has been isolated in patients with mild or moderate disease after 10 days of symptoms, or after 20 days in those with severe or critical disease, despite ongoing viral shedding. Data about the dynamics of viral shedding in people with persistent asymptomatic infection are inconsistent. There is no convincing evidence that duration of viral shedding correlates with duration of infectivity.
Factors associated with prolonged viral shedding include male sex, older age, comorbid hypertension, delayed admission to hospital after symptom onset or severe illness on admission, and use of invasive mechanical ventilation or corticosteroids.
The pathophysiology is not yet fully understood; however, details are emerging.
Angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE2) receptor
A unique structural feature of the spike glycoprotein receptor binding domain of SARS-CoV-2 (which is responsible for the entry of the virus into host cells) confers potentially higher binding affinity for ACE2 on host cells compared with SARS-CoV-1. This furin-like cleavage site does not exist in other SARS-like coronaviruses. The binding energy between the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and ACE2 was highest for humans out of all species tested, suggesting that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein is uniquely evolved to bind to and infect human cells expressing ACE2.
Mechanistic evidence from other coronaviruses suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may downregulate ACE2, leading to a toxic overaccumulation of plasma angiotensin-II, which may induce acute respiratory distress syndrome and fulminant myocarditis.
Based on an analysis of single-cell RNA sequencing datasets derived from major human physiologic systems, the organs considered more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection due to their ACE2 expression levels include the lungs, heart, esophagus, kidneys, bladder, and ileum. This may explain the extrapulmonary manifestations associated with infection.
Lower expression of ACE2 in the nasal epithelium of children ages <10 years compared with adults may explain why COVID-19 is less prevalent in children; however, further research on this is required.
Transmembrane protease serine 2 (TMPRSS2)
SARS-CoV-2 uses host TMPRSS2 for S protein priming and fusion of viral and host cell membranes.
Higher expression of TMPRSS2 has been noted in the nasal epithelium of Black people compared with Asian people, Latin people, White people, and people of mixed race/ethnicity, which may be a contributing factor to the higher burden of infection among Black people.
Pulmonary: autopsy studies have revealed that patients who died of respiratory failure had evidence of exudative diffuse alveolar damage with massive capillary congestion, often accompanied by microthrombi. Hyaline membrane formation and pneumocyte atypical hyperplasia are common. Pulmonary artery obstruction by thrombotic material at both the macroscopic and microscopic levels has been identified. Patients also had signs of generalized thrombotic microangiopathy. Severe endothelial injury associated with the presence of intracellular virus and disrupted cell membranes has been noted. Other findings include bronchopneumonia, pulmonary embolism, alveolar hemorrhage, and vasculitis. Significant new blood vessel growth through intussusceptive angiogenesis distinguishes the pulmonary pathology of COVID-19 from severe influenza infection.
Neurologic: histopathologic examination of brain specimens showed hypoxic changes but no encephalitis or other specific brain changes due to the virus in one autopsy study. The virus was detected at low levels in brain tissue. Another study found mild neuropathologic changes, with pronounced neuroinflammatory changes in the brainstem being the most common finding.
Cardiac: SARS-CoV-2 has been frequently detected in the myocardium in autopsy studies. The virus, along with inflammatory changes, has been reported in the cardiac tissue of a child with pediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome.
Immunology: evaluation of immune infiltrate has revealed a notable presence of aggregated neutrophils in the lungs and several other organs. Neutrophilic plugs, composed of neutrophils with neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) or as aggregates of NETs and platelets, were present in the heart, kidney, liver, and brain. NETs may therefore play a role in coagulopathy associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection. The disproportionate presence of aggregate neutrophils and NETs in comparison with the sporadic presence of virus suggests an autonomous maladaptive immune response.
Other: other novel findings at autopsy include pancreatitis, pericarditis, adrenal microinfarction, secondary disseminated mucormycosis, and brain microglial activation.
There is a hypothesis that COVID-19 is a disease of the endothelium. Endotheliopathy and platelet activation appear to be important features of COVID-19 in hospitalized patients and are likely to be associated with coagulopathy, critical illness, and death.
Hyperviscosity has been reported in patients. It is known to damage the endothelium, and is a known risk factor for thrombosis. The potential link between hyperviscosity and thrombotic complications warrants further investigation.
Genetic factors are thought to play a role. In a case series of four male patients with severe disease, rare putative loss-of-function variants of X-chromosomal TLR7 were identified, and this was associated with impairment of interferon responses.
A novel susceptibility locus has been detected at a chromosome 3p21.31 gene cluster in patients with respiratory failure, which may confirm the involvement of the ABO blood-group system.
World Health Organization: COVID-19 disease severity
Symptomatic patients meeting the case definition for COVID-19 without evidence of hypoxia or pneumonia.
Common symptoms include fever, cough, fatigue, anorexia, dyspnea, and myalgia. Other nonspecific symptoms include sore throat, nasal congestion, headache, diarrhea, nausea/vomiting, and loss of smell/taste.
Older people and immunosuppressed people may present with atypical symptoms (e.g., fatigue, reduced alertness, reduced mobility, diarrhea, loss of appetite, delirium, absence of fever).
Symptoms due to physiologic adaptations of pregnancy or adverse pregnancy events (e.g., dyspnea, fever, gastrointestinal symptoms, fatigue) or other diseases (e.g., malaria) may overlap with COVID-19 symptoms.
Adolescent or adult: clinical signs of pneumonia (i.e., fever, cough, dyspnea, fast breathing) but no signs of severe pneumonia, including blood oxygen saturation levels (SpO₂) ≥90% on room air.
Children: clinical signs of nonsevere pneumonia (i.e., cough or difficulty breathing plus fast breathing and/or chest indrawing) and no signs of severe pneumonia. Fast breathing is defined as:
<2 months of age: ≥60 breaths/minute
2-11 months of age: ≥50 breaths/minute
1-5 years years of age: ≥40 breaths/minute.
While the diagnosis can be made on clinical grounds, chest imaging may assist in diagnosis and identify or exclude pulmonary complications.
Adolescent or adult: clinical signs of pneumonia (i.e., fever, cough, dyspnea, fast breathing) plus one of the following:
Respiratory rate >30 breaths/minute
Severe respiratory distress
SpO₂ <90% on room air.
Children: clinical signs of pneumonia (i.e., cough or difficulty in breathing) plus at least one of the following:
Central cyanosis or SpO₂ <90%
Severe respiratory distress (e.g., fast breathing, grunting, very severe chest indrawing)
General danger signs: inability to breastfeed or drink, lethargy or unconsciousness, or convulsions
Fast breathing (<2 months: ≥60 breaths per minute; 2-11 months: ≥50 breaths per minute; 1-5 years: ≥40 breaths per minute).
While the diagnosis can be made on clinical grounds, chest imaging may assist in diagnosis and identify or exclude pulmonary complications.
Presence of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), sepsis, or septic shock.
Other complications include acute pulmonary embolism, acute coronary syndrome, acute stroke, and delirium.
National Institutes of Health: clinical classification of COVID-19
Asymptomatic or presymptomatic infection
People who test positive for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) but have no symptoms.
People who have any of various signs and symptoms (e.g., fever, cough, sore throat, malaise, headache, muscle pain) without shortness of breath, dyspnea, or abnormal imaging.
People who have evidence of lower respiratory disease by clinical assessment or imaging and an oxygen saturation (SpO₂) >93% on room air at sea level.
People who have respiratory frequency >30 breaths per minute, SpO₂ ≤93% on room air at sea level, ratio of arterial partial pressure of oxygen to fraction of inspired oxygen (PaO₂/FiO₂) <300, or lung infiltrates >50%.
People who have respiratory failure, septic shock, and/or multiple organ dysfunction.
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