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January 23, 2020

Coronavirus Infections—More Than Just the Common Cold

Author Affiliations
  • 1Penn State University College of Medicine, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Hershey, Pennsylvania
  • 2National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland
JAMA. Published online January 23, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.0757

Human coronaviruses (HCoVs) have long been considered inconsequential pathogens, causing the “common cold” in otherwise healthy people. However, in the 21st century, 2 highly pathogenic HCoVs—severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV)—emerged from animal reservoirs to cause global epidemics with alarming morbidity and mortality. In December 2019, yet another pathogenic HCoV, 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), was recognized in Wuhan, China, and has caused serious illness and death. The ultimate scope and effect of this outbreak is unclear at present as the situation is rapidly evolving.

Coronaviruses are large, enveloped, positive-strand RNA viruses that can be divided into 4 genera: alpha, beta, delta, and gamma, of which alpha and beta CoVs are known to infect humans.1 Four HCoVs (HCoV 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1) are endemic globally and account for 10% to 30% of upper respiratory tract infections in adults. Coronaviruses are ecologically diverse with the greatest variety seen in bats, suggesting that they are the reservoirs for many of these viruses.2 Peridomestic mammals may serve as intermediate hosts, facilitating recombination and mutation events with expansion of genetic diversity. The surface spike (S) glycoprotein is critical for binding of host cell receptors and is believed to represent a key determinant of host range restriction.1

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