A new report into the range of symptoms experienced by coronavirus patients suggests that around one in 10 suffer from diarrhea and nausea for a few days before developing breathing difficulties, leading to suggestions that the pathogen may be transmitted via feces. While this route of transmission has not been confirmed, the new data does raise the possibility that doctors may have missed some key early warning signs by focusing only on cases involving respiratory symptoms.
It has already been established that the virus is primarily passed on by droplets in an infected person’s cough, and the new study – which features in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) – found that the majority of coronavirus patients at a hospital in Wuhan, China, suffered from symptoms such as fever, muscle pain, and shortness of breath at the onset of the illness.
However, of the 138 patients observed by the study authors, 14 initially presented with diarrhea or nausea, developing more classic coronavirus symptoms a day or two later. According to Chinese media reports, doctors found traces of viral nucleic acids in the stool of patients who exhibited these atypical digestive symptoms.
The first US patient to be diagnosed with coronavirus is also said to have experienced diarrhea for a few days, and the virus was also found to be present in his feces.
While this doesn’t mean that fecal matter is responsible for the spread of the illness, it does provide evidence for another similarity between coronavirus and SARS, to which it is related. Back in 2003, hundreds of people in a Hong Kong housing estate became infected with SARS thanks to a plume of warm air emanating from a bathroom that had been used by an infected person.
More research is needed before any firm conclusions can be made, but the emerging information certainly points towards a possible fecal route of transmission for coronavirus. Whether or not that turns out to be the case, however, there’s no doubt that the vast majority of new infections continue to be caused by coughing.
Significantly, 41 percent of patients in the study became infected in hospital, with both healthcare workers and patients who had been hospitalized for other reasons catching coronavirus. Regardless of the transmission route, therefore, it seems that hospitals are a potential breeding ground for the virus, suggesting that improved hygiene may be necessary to prevent its spread.