Coronavirus: 8 things you need to know about COVID-19

With four cases of coronavirus now confirmed in New Zealand, many people have started going to extreme ends like bulk-buying hand sanitiser and face masks to protect themselves from becoming infected.

There have even been reports of people panic-buying toilet paper as they fear the situation here will get worse. 

But is that all really necessary? 

Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist who specialises in infectious diseases, answers some questions about what we should and shouldn't be doing amid COVID-19 fears.

What is the likelihood of picking up COVID-19 from a hard surface?

According to Dr Wiles, the virus is spread through droplets, with germs lasting anywhere from hours to days. 

That means that if infected people are coughing and sneezing it's likely those germs will get on surrounding surfaces.

"There's no guarantee if you touch surfaces you will get in infection but you're certainly more likely too if there's the virus there," says Dr Wiles. 

"That's why the main message has been around washing hands."

How effective are hand sanitisers?

Although using hand sanitiser does work, it isn't always necessary, says Dr Wiles.

"Soap and water is just fine - you don't need to be stocking up massively on hand sanitiser unless you're someone who is a bit immunocompromised and therefore when you're out and about it's really important that you keep your hands clean."

And although normal soap does the job just fine, if you are using hand sanitiser make sure it has a high alcohol content.

"For things to be anti-viral, in terms of hand sanitisers what you really need is something that's got alcohol - really, kind of above 70 percent alcohol is what you're looking for," she says. 

"So hand santisers that don't have that, I wouldn't be recommended those." 

Are people with autoimmune diseases more susceptible to severe cases?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) people with underlying health issues, as well as older people, are more vulnerable to the disease.

A report by the WHO that looked at around 50,000 cases highlighted people with things like chest issues and diabetes as being particularly at-risk.

"But they didn't list things like celiac, they didn't list pregnant women," says Dr Wiles.

Anyone who has regular contact with people who do have vulnerable immune systems should be extra careful of their own health, too, so they don't end up passing the illness on, says Dr Wiles.

"If someone knows that you are vulnerable then they should be making sure that they are looking out for you as well."

What are the best ways people can protect themselves and their family?

"The first thing to say is that there's no evidence to say that children are more susceptible than adults," says Dr Wiles. 

"So in terms of keeping yourself safe, the thing to say at the moment is that we have no real evidence that there are huge numbers of people in New Zealand with this disease."

She says if - or more probably when - the virus becomes more established here, it's important to implement what is called "social distancing".

"[It's] keeping your distance from people, no big hugs and kisses...hand hygiene - so making sure that you wash them and dry them - sneezing into your elbow, and the biggest one is if you have any symptoms at all staying home. 

"Do not go out and put others at risk. So while you may have a mild infection it could end up being quite severe for someone else."

How effective are masks at protecting against infection?

"First off there are lots of different kinds of masks," says Dr Wiles. "And the masks that most people are getting are really not suitable for stopping the transmission of viruses."

Another issues, she says, is how you wear your mask.

"It's really important that the mask is fitted correctly, Dr Wiles says, adding that "most people will probably be wearing it wrong”.

She says in general people who are already infected should wear a mask but if you're not infected and you wear one incorrectly, you may end up putting yourself more at risk.

"Masks are a good idea for somebody who has symptoms, but it would be worse to wear one if you didn't know how to wear it if you don't have the virus because you're much more likely to be fiddling with your face and then if you had droplets on your fingers you're much more likely to infect yourself." 

When are people most infectious?

When it comes to knowing exactly when people are most prone to spreading the virus, Dr Wiles says scientists "don't have a huge handle on that yet", though it is "really clear that it's when people have symptoms".

"It's not impossible that somebody could be transmitting when they don't have symptoms, but at the moment there's very little evidence for that," she says.

"What happens when someone gets infected is that we have this period called the incubation period and that's the time between them being exposed and then ending up with symptoms. So that's the period where it's very unlikely that anybody is actually infectious and then when they develop symptoms if they don't isolate themselves then you can get spread."

Dr Wiles says the period between being exposed and showing symptoms is usually around three to seven days but can be as long as 14 days.

"And that's why we have this 14-day isolation because within that time if you haven't come up with symptoms you're very unlikely to come up with symptoms."

What would say to people whose fears are encouraging racially-motivated aggression?

The answer to this is simple: "It's wrong," says Dr Wiles.

"Because this disease started in China now it's an automatic assumption if you are Chinese or look Chinese then that you have it and that's just not true at all," she says.

"Had this disease happened somewhere else then the response would have been different. I think people need to be mindful that infectious diseases just don't care who you are. If you're human and you're exposed you can get it. And what's more important now is that we don't panic and we behave in a way that doesn't make things worse."

What are the key differences between the flu and COVID-19?

"They are two very, very different viruses, from very different families," says Dr Wiles.

Although both illnesses can have similar symptoms one main difference is that there is currently no vaccine to COVID-19, which means "we're all susceptible to it".

"Whereas with influenza, depending on your age or whether you've had influenza before you can not catch it," she says.

"We think that everybody's going to be susceptible to this, which is an awful lot of people. And even if it was just a small percentage of those who were going to die that's a lot of people."