On December 31, 2019, WHO was alerted to several cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China. The virus did not match any other known virus. This raised concern because when a virus is new and medical personnel didn’t know how it affects people.
One week later, on January 7, Chinese authorities confirmed that they had identified a new virus. The new virus is a coronavirus, which is a family of viruses that include the common cold, and viruses such as SARS and MERS. This new virus was temporarily named “2019-nCoV.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been working with Chinese authorities and global experts from the day they were informed to learn more about the virus, how it affects the people who are sick with it, how they can be treated, and what countries can do to respond to the outbreak. China said on Thursday that the total number of deaths from the coronavirus had risen to 170, with cases now confirmed in every province and region in the country.
More than 7,700 people have been sickened in mainland China, while 68 cases have been reported around the world. Government has locked down almost 20 cities and has quarantined an estimated 56 million people.
The infection is now more widespread than the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak which also originated in China, in terms of affected people but not deaths.
What is coronavirus?
The coronavirus receives its name from the halo or crown (corona) that is seen when the virus is viewed by an electron microscope.
This morphology is actually attributed to the glycoproteins the virus uses to attach to the host cell. Coronaviruses also have an enveloped structure with a positive sense RNA genome.
In humans, coronaviruses infect cells of the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tract and are responsible for about one third of all common colds.
Other coronaviruses are also serious agricultural threats because they are known to infect cattle, pigs, birds, dogs, cats and rodents. The most publicized type of coronavirus is the virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS. The virus that causes SARS is known as SARS-CoV.
This virus first appeared in Southern China in November of 2002 and was recognized as a global threat in March of 2003. During that time, SARS spread worldwide infecting at least 8,098 people and killing 774 people, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). By late July 2003, no new cases had been reported and WHO declared the global outbreak to be over. Presently, it is unclear whether and, if so, under what conditions a SARS-CoV outbreak might re-occur in the future.
An important lesson of SARS is that future emerging viruses might arise from any virus group, for example prior to SARS, coronaviruses had not been associated with any serious human disease.
Coronaviruses including SARS-CoV are spread by close person to person contact most commonly during the winter months.
The virus is most frequently spread by respiratory droplets produced when someone infected coughs or sneezes. The droplets containing the virus can be propelled generally up to three feet and can land onto the mouth, nose or eyes of people nearby. The infectious droplets can also land on objects and surfaces where someone can then pick them up and touch his/her mouth, nose or eyes.
The symptoms of most coronaviruses are similar to those of a common cold, including sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, coughing, watery eyes, mild headache and mild body aches.
In the case of SARS, most patients develop a high fever that is sometimes associated with chills, headache, body aches and a general feeling of discomfort.
After two to seven days, SARS patients may develop a dry, nonproductive cough which can lead to low oxygen levels in the blood. Most patients with SARS develop pneumonia.
The best way to prevent infection is by taking simple precautions that can apply to many infectious diseases, such as frequent hand washing with soap and water or use of an alcohol based hand rub.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands and encourage others to cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that patients with SARS receive the same treatment that would be used for a patient with any serious community-acquired pneumonia.
Testing is being conducted to determine if antiviral drugs or vaccines would be an effective treatment or prevention option.
Incubation period (how long it takes for symptoms to appear)
The Wuhan coronavirus appears to be contagious before symptoms appear, as it is estimated to have an incubation period of 10 to 14 days, according to Ma Xiaowei, the director of China’s National Health Commission.
The United States’ CDC estimates the incubation period for 2019-nCoV to be between 2 and 14 days. This means that symptoms of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14, during which the virus is contagious but the patient doesn’t display any symptom (asymptomatic transmission).
How deadly is it?
Some experts say it may not be as deadly as other types of coronavirus such as SARS, which killed nearly 800 people worldwide, more than 300 in China alone during a 2002-2003 outbreak that also originated from China.
Researchers have given a low estimate of 20,000 coronavirus infections in China alone by the end of the month, with high estimates of over 100,000. That would mean between 400 and 2,000 deaths, based on current fatality rates.
Where have cases been reported?
Most cases have been reported in China. All deaths have been in China – the vast majority in Hubei province. The virus has spread to many Asian countries, as well as Australia, Europe and North America. Nearly all of the dozens of cases outside China are among people who recently travelled there. There is no vaccine yet for the new virus.
More than a dozen other Chinese cities also adopted transport restrictions, affecting 56 million people. Several airlines, including United Airlines and British Airways, have cancelled flights to China. Airports around the world have introduced screening measures and some countries are working to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan.
Where did the virus originate from?
Chinese health authorities are still trying to determine the origin of the virus, which they say came from a seafood market in Wuhan where wildlife was also traded illegally. The WHO also says an animal source appears most likely to be the primary source of the outbreak. Snakes including the Chinese krait and the cobra may be the source of the newly discovered virus, according to Chinese scientists.