Coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, is a respiratory illness which has not previously been seen in humans.

There has been no confirmed case of coronavirus anywhere in Ireland and the risk of getting the disease here is considered low.

In Ireland samples are tested for coronavirus at the National Virus Reference Laboratory at UCD.

The laboratory's director, Dr Cillian de Gascun, is the chair of the Coronavirus Expert Advisory Group at the Department of Health's National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

We put out a call on Instagram for questions, and put them to Dr de Gascun.


How did the outbreak start?

Dr de Gascun said it was too early to identify the exact cause, but scientists looking at the genome sequence have determined its likely source as a species of bat.

"The problem is that, as I'm led to believe, bats are hibernating in China at the moment. So it could be that the virus spent time adapting in some intermediate host which has not been identified, if that is the case," he said.

Whatever the host was, it was most likely present at the seafood market in Wuhan linked to a majority of the early cases.


What are the initial symptoms?

"It's a respiratory virus and if we look at studies done in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, the most common symptoms have been fever, fatigue, cough, loss of appetite and muscle pain," he said.

It can take up to two weeks for symptoms to appear and others include shortness of breath or general breathing difficulties. 

Coronavirus can also result in more severe illness like pneumonia, kidney failure, and severe acute respiratory syndrome.

"It is a new pathogen so it will take time to get a comprehensive pictures of what the symptoms are. Some reports have mentioned abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and vomiting. But we will learn more over the coming months," Dr de Gascun added.


How quickly can it spread around the world and will it come to Ireland?

"It's possible we will get a small number of cases, but if we believe the figures it looks like the Chinese authorities have done a good job containing the virus," he said.

Dr de Gascun added that we are coming up on three months since the virus has been around and 99% of the cases are still in China.

He also said there wasn't enough evidence at this stage to determine whether a country’s climate plays a role in spreading the disease.


Do quarantine zones work?

Dr de Gascun said the fundamental reason behind the use of quarantine zones or self-isolation is because we have no other measures to combat coronavirus.

"We don’t have antiviral therapy or a vaccine. So the key is to identify infected people, confirm their diagnosis and isolate them," he said.

Health officials then identify who they may have been in contact with and monitor them for the incubation period - the time it takes between exposure to a disease and when symptoms develop.

"We believe that period is a maximum of 14 days. If we can do that - we contain the infection," he said.

Dr de Gascun said it appeared the majority of people were only transmitting the virus when they had symptoms.

"The problem is if we miss somebody, or if they have opportunity to pass the virus on - then it becomes very difficult to control," he added.


Do masks stop the spread of coronavirus?

Dr De Gascun said coronavirus is spread in sneeze or cough droplets.

This means you can get the virus if you come into close contact with someone who has the virus who is coughing or sneezing, or if you have touched a surface that has been coughed or sneezed on. Simple household disinfectants can kill the virus on surfaces. 

If you have coronavirus or are in close contact with someone who has the disease, you should wear a face mask.

You do not need a face mask if you feel well and have no symptoms. 

Still, there are some other steps you can take to protect yourself. You are advised to wash your hands properly and regularly, and cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough and sneeze.

"A surgical mask will catch these droplets but other masks won’t. They don't have an airtight seal so won’t stop 100% of droplets," Dr de Gascun said.

He said masks have the indirect benefit of stopping people from touching their face, although this could be achieved through good hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette.


How do I stay safe?

"There is a minimal to negligible risk of acquiring coronavirus in Ireland at this time," he said.

Health professionals will try to contact you if they believe you have been in contact with someone who has coronavirus. 

"Carry hand sanitizer. Good hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette is beneficial," Dr de Gascun added.

You should wash your hands properly and regularly with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub.

You should cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough, and dispose of your used tissues in a bin. 

Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean.

"And this doesn't just apply to coronavirus. If you see someone who is symptomatic, don't sit right beside them if you don't have to," he said.

"Typically these droplets travel between one and two metres. Watching your personal space can go a long way," he added.

The Department of Foreign Affairs is advising against all non-essential travel to China, and has advice for other countries on its website.

Unless you have been to mainland China, Macau, Hong Kong, or near someone who has been infected, you do not need to follow any further advice in relation to coronavirus.

Antibiotics and the flu vaccine do not protect against coronavirus.


Can I still import goods from China?

"Yes. The World Health Organization hasn't recommended any travel or trade restrictions," Dr de Gascun said.

The HSE says you cannot get coronavirus from packages or food that has come from China or elsewhere.

There is no evidence that animals or animal products legally imported into the EU are a health risk. 


Should I call off my holiday?

Many of you were concerned about your planned getaways around the globe - from Turkey to Thailand.

The Department of Foreign Affairs offers advice and warnings for any country you may be interested in travelling to. 

"If you need to go to China for business, you can still travel - but your experience there might not be great because there are all sorts of restrictions on things like public gatherings there," Dr de Gascun said.


Does everyone who contracts the virus die?

"The crude figures we have at this stage put mortality at just over 2%," Dr de Gascun said.

He said that while that might seem low, it is about 20 times higher than seasonal influenza.  

People have been identified as more at risk if they are over the age of 65, or have a long-term medical condition like heart disease, lung disease, liver disease, or diabetes.

"The majority of people who died were older and had comorbidities. They tended to be male and smokers," he added.

Early studies suggest that coronavirus is more fatal to men than women, but Dr de Gascun said there was no definitive answer as to why. 


Is anyone working on a cure?

"As a new virus there's nothing on the shelf ready to go," Dr de Gascun said.

"But looking at the way this virus enters cells in the body and the certain enzymes it uses, we might have drugs that will have an effect," he added.

"There are laboratory trials of drugs used to treat HIV and Ebola which suggest they could work, but clinical trials are ongoing and we don’t have any licensed medicines yet," he said.