As the hysteria behind coronavirus spreads beyond Wuhan to Chicago and other parts of the world, many people remain relatively uninformed about the true nature of the disease due to the lack of experts on the topic.

The term “coronavirus” actually refers to a family of ribonucleic acid (RNA) viruses, with its main characteristic being that these viruses are in animals and can spread to humans, and humans can then spread them to each other. Coronaviruses are pervasive in that they have been around for a long time, first being identified in the 1960s, and cause about 20% to 25% of the common cold, which often has symptoms including a runny nose, cough, sneezing and fatigue. According to analysis of the genetic tree, coronaviruses originated in bats, although it is unknown whether there was an intermediary animal host.

Some notable coronaviruses include SARS and MERS, both of which have also caused outbreaks in the past.

COVID-19 has a lower mortality rate, and nobody in the U.S. has died from it. There are currently only 15 cases in the U.S. as of now.

“The high end is 2% and the low end is less than 1%,” said Robert Murphy, Northwestern professor of medicine and biomedical engineering. “However, the Spanish flu had a mortality rate, less than 1%, 20 million people died because hundreds of millions of people got it.”

Murphy said compared to previous outbreaks of older coronaviruses, COVID-19 has spread to many more people but causes fewer deaths percentage-wise.

The novel coronavirus is capable of taking the life of a perfectly healthy individual, and the disease often has no obvious symptoms. At least one report has shown people contracting the disease despite having no symptoms, but COVID-19 often has cold-like symptoms.

COVID-19, like other members of its family, is spread through respiratory droplets, which is why a mask may help reduce the spreading of the virus. There is a debate, however, over whether wearing a mask actually protects people from getting sick.

“The virus itself is very small,” Murphy said. “And it’s smaller than the filter ability of the mask, and most of those masks you see that you can kind of see people’s cheeks on the side - those do almost no good.”

Currently, scientists are developing a vaccine for COVID-19, but it’s in its early stages. Murphy said to be careful with these drugs because they can have “toxicities and complications of their own.” Since researchers know about the virus, there is likely a possibility of developing a good drug for the disease.

There are still not many informed experts on the disease, as the death rate of the disease determines the research funding, but the world is taking public health measures, such as implementing travel bans and isolating sick patients, to help prevent coronavirus from spreading further.

For more information about COVID-19, check out resources from Northwestern University Health Service, World Health Organization,  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a podcast from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Editor's Note: This article was updated on Feb. 23. A previous version of the article used the word "suck" instead of "sick."

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