It’s been another worrying few days for the Wuhan coronavirus. Here’s what we know so far.
At least 830 cases of the coronavirus, along with 26 deaths caused by the infection, have been confirmed by Chinese health officials as of Friday, January 24, according to Xinhua Chinese state media, though this is likely to keep rising.
Infected people have been reported in 29 provinces of China, along with the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao. Cases have also been confirmed in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and the US.
However, the number of infected is thought to be considerably higher than that confirmed. One report by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London suggested that there could be over 4,000 cases or more of the virus in Wuhan alone, a city of 11 million.
Tests on 14 people in the UK returning from the area have so far come back negative, but Professor Paul Cosford, medical director at Public Health England, told BBC News that it’s “highly likely that we will have cases in the UK.”
Everyday life in many Chinese cities has undergone a drastic change over the past few days. There are numerous news reports of overcrowded hospitals, pharmacies running out of supplies, price hikes on items like face masks, and empty streets. Hoping to ease some of this pressure, Wuhan has already started construction on a special 1,000-bed hospital by February 3 to treat victims of the epidemic, reports Xinhua.
In an attempt to contain the spread of infection, China has restricted travel for 35 million people with authorities starting emergency quarantine measures in at least 12 cities. The new measures were quickly brought in ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday this weekend, which typically sees tens of millions of citizens traveling both domestically and internationally. Beijing has canceled all mass festivities.
The virus infects the respiratory system and causes a number of lung problems, such as pneumonia. Currently known as 2019-nCoVs, the new coronavirus has three distinct strains and is around 88 percent genetically-related to SARS, the notorious respiratory illness that started in China in 2002 and went on to kill over 774 people around the world.
“There are still many missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle to fully understanding this new virus which is spreading rapidly across China, and most probably around the world,” Peter Piot, Professor of Global Health and Director at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, commented on Friday.
“The good news is that the data so far suggest that this virus may have a lower mortality than SARS, we have a diagnostic test and there is greater transparency than decades gone by. And that is essential because you cannot deal with a potential pandemic in one country alone.”
The first reports of the virus came from the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. All signs suggest that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, which illegally sells live and wild animals, could be the source of the outbreak.
A controversial study published in the Journal of Medical Virology this week suggested that 2019-nCoV likely resided in snakes before jumping to humans. However, another study has since claimed that bats are the most likely culprit. Although the original transmission was from an animal, human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission, making the outbreak all the riskier.
A World Health Organisation emergency committee has said it’s too early to declare the China coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, like the 2014 West African Ebola epidemic, and the Zika emergency of 2015-16, as though there have been cases reported outside China it is still currently largely confined to there.